Ogwumike carries women's basketball to C-USA title game
Rice will have a chance to clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday after a 64-57 comeback win over Western Kentucky University in the Conference USA Tournament semifinal on Friday night.
Early on, the Hilltoppers made it look like they were ready to pull off the upset. The two-time defending C-USA Tournament champions hit five straight 3-pointers in the second quarter to go on a 15-0 run and take a 30-20 lead late in the first half. Rice senior guard Shani Rainey stemmed the bleeding, closing the Owls within 30-25 at the half with five consecutive points of her own. Junior guard Erica Ogwumike said it was important that the team managed to keep its composure.
“We were all pretty calm, I think because we are confident in our offense and our defense,“ Ogwumike said. “We just knew we had to get past that run and get stops and then also execute on offense.”
Western Kentucky maintained its lead through much of the third quarter, taking a 41-38 lead in the waning minutes. That’s when Rice turned the tides. Freshman guard Jasmine Smith hit a 3-pointer just before the buzzer to put Rice ahead for good, 43-41. The Owls scored 13 straight points, highlighted by eight straight from Ogwumike alone, to turn a three-point deficit into a 51-41 double digit lead. Western Kentucky never closed within five points the rest of the game.
“We know in tournament time, this is a battle,” Rice head coach Tina Langley said. “It’s going to be the team that can keep their head about them and execute in tough moments. [I’m] really proud of the toughness, both mentally and physically, that our team showed today.”
Ogwumike took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 of her 22 points in the final frame. She finished with a double-double of 22 points, 12 rebounds and 4 assists. Sophomore guard Sydne Wiggins added 11 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists.
Rice will play Middle Tennessee State University on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in the C-USA Championship Game. Rice defeated MTSU 60-47 on the road earlier this season. The winner of that game will earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Langley said this year’s Rice team has been special both in on-court performance and off-court mentality.
“This past week, I’ve never seen a team prepare the way they’ve prepared,“ Langley said. “From extra shooting to getting in and watching film...and still preparing your mind as well as your body, I think they’re a really selfless group of people. Our first core value that we talk about is unity, and I think you really see that when our team is together off the floor as well as on the floor.”
This marks Rice’s first appearance in the conference title game since 2007, and a win would put the Owls in their first NCAA Tournament since 2005. Rice, which has now won 20 consecutive games, would also become the first team in C-USA history to complete an undefeated regular season and postseason in conference play with a win.
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