The Final Kauntdown: Women's basketball puts C-USA on notice
After Rice women’s basketball closed the 2016-17 season by winning the Women’s Basketball Invitational championship, outgoing senior Maya Hawkins, who had just been named the tournament’s most valuable player, made a bold statement.
“I know,” Hawkins said to the Thresher at the time, “we are only scratching the surface of what this program can and will accomplish.”
It’s safe to say she knew what she was talking about. This past weekend, the Owls swept two road games against the second- and third-best teams in the conference to put themselves in sole possession of first place in Conference USA.
In doing so, they made a bold statement of their own: they’re no longer a team on the rise. Rice women’s basketball is officially a team to be feared.
Rice didn’t just beat Middle Tennessee State University and University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB) this weekend. They destroyed them by 13 and 12 points, accordingly. They held the Blue Raiders and Blazers to 47 and 43 points, respectively. Did I mention that UAB is averaging 75.3 points per game? And Middle Tennessee 65.2? And that those two teams were a combined 12-1 in conference play coming into the match with Rice? The Owls didn’t care. They marched into their opponents’ gyms and obliterated them.
The past two seasons have been outstanding for the program. The team has had consecutive 20-win seasons and two postseason tournament berths, including one championship. The one thing that has eluded the Owls, however, is a C-USA title. This year, they look ready to clear that hurdle and make it back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005.
The key to this year’s team has been the mix of star power and depth. Sophomore center Nancy Mulkey was a human wrecking ball this past weekend, putting up eight blocks in each of the Owls’ wins. She also averaged 17 points and 8.5 rebounds in the victories. Her inside presence has complemented junior guard Erica Ogwumike’s perimeter game. Ogwumike, the preseason conference player of the year, has put up 16.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game on the season. Together, the duo forms a dynamic one-two punch.
Outside of Mulkey and Ogwumike, the Owls have five other players averaging at least five points per game. This depth has allowed head coach Tina Langley to rest players like Ogwumike and Mulkey without sacrificing much on the scoreboard.
Perhaps the main driver of the team’s success so far, however, has been its defense. Rice is allowing just 55.5 points per game, which is the second-best mark in the conference. Mulkey has added a new dimension to the Owls’ defense since returning from a wrist injury early in the season. She has provided elite rim protection by putting up 45 blocks in just 11 games.
If the Owls’ stars and rotation players can keep up their current play, Rice should be among the last teams standing at the C-USA tournament in March. With a conference championship within their sight, it’s time C-USA took notice: The Owls have arrived.
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