In 2016, Rice women’s basketball head coach Tina Langley introduced a pair of sisters, Erica and Olivia Ogwumike, as transfers from Pepperdine University.
After sitting out the 2016-2017 season due to transfer rules, both Olivia and Erica have blended seamlessly with the Owls: Erica, a junior guard, leads the team in scoring with 17.1 points per game; Olivia, a senior forward, started for Rice during its first two contests against opponents ranked in the top 25.
Langley possesses far more at her disposal than the two Ogwumike sisters, whose older sibling, Nneka, is a former WNBA first overall pick. Veteran leadership has propelled the Owls to an 11-3 record and a 2-0 start in Conference USA, a far cry from Langley’s first season in 2015 when Rice finished its first 14 games with only three wins. Included are a quartet of seniors: Olivia Ogwumike, guard Shani Rainey, guard Nicole Iademarco and guard Lauren Grigsby.
Rainey is the heartbeat of the Owls. Last season, she redshirted due to a leg injury suffered during the 2017 Women’s Basketball Invitational championship game, which Rice won. In the WBI Championship season, Rainey started all 35 games for the Owls; she has played in each game this year but has started only four because of Rice’s improved depth. Sophomore guard Sydne Wiggins is one player who has eaten into Rainey’s playing time, starting 12 games and contributing 6.4 points per contest.
Iademarco and Grigsby are Rice’s three-point markswomen. Each guard has splashed in 18 three-point makes, with Grigsby besting Iademarco in terms of efficiency (45 percent versus 33 percent). Both players have operated as floor stretchers for Wiggins and Erica Ogwumike, who have 73 assists combined. Iademarco has also excelled as a passer and averages 2.6 assists per game. Grigsby’s efficiency translates to the free throw line, where she shoots with 85 percent accuracy. From the field, Grigsby shoots 51 percent.
Another bright spot for the Owls this season has been sophomore center Nancy Mulkey. Standing at 6 feet, 9 inches, Mulkey averages 4.7 rebounds per game and is second in the team in scoring while playing 24.2 minutes per contest.
As a team, Rice primarily excels in two areas: offensive efficiency and scoring defense. Per NCAA, out of 349 qualifying teams, the Owls are ranked No. 51 in free throw percentage (74 percent), No. 75 in three-point percentage (34 percent) and No. 25 in field goal percentage (46 percent). Additionally, Rice is ranked No. 76 in scoring defense, limiting opponents to an average of 58.9 points per game.
The Owls’ Achilles’ heel has been possessing the ball: Rice both surrenders turnovers and struggles to create them. Per NCAA, Langley’s squad ranks No. 195 in assist/turnover ratio (0.78), No. 233 in steals per game (7.2) and No. 121 in blocks per game (3.6). Consequently, the Owls own a scanty per-game turnover margin of -2.2, which places them at No. 278 in the nation.
Rice has one fewer win at this stage in the season compared to last year when they were 12-2; one possible explanation is that the Owls’ first two opponents were No. 20-ranked Texas A&M University and No. 23-ranked University of California, Los Angeles. Since its 0-2 start, Rice is 11-3 with notable wins against Texas Southern University, Coastal Carolina University and Southern Methodist University.