Owls continue conference climb
Had you told women's basketball Head Coach Greg Williams in July that his team would get off to the worst start in the program's history, he probably would have been shocked. Had you told him that over the next 14 games, his team would find 10 wins to get back to the .500 mark, he might have called you a liar. Williams' disbelief may be hypothetical, but these situations are all too real for the team this season. The Owls (10-10, 4-3 Conference USA) captured two key C-USA games this weekend - one against Southern Methodist University, the other against the University of Tulsa - to earn not just a .500 record but, for the first time this season, more conference wins than conference defeats.
The Owls desperately needed a good showing last Thursday night against the Mustangs (15-5, 5-2 C-USA) after a tough overtime loss to the University of Memphis the previous weekend. If Rice had any hopes of gaining recognition as an elite program inside C-USA this season, it needed to defeat SMU, which would bolster the Owls' record and give them a second win against a conference leader.
Rice came out with guns blazing against SMU in the first half, walking off the floor at halftime with a healthy 33-23 lead. At one point, the Owls were up to a 24-7 lead before SMU was able to settle in and pick up its defensive effort. Rice also capitalized on an ugly half full of misses and turnovers to outscore SMU 13-3 on second-chance points, helping pad its lead.
In the second half, the Mustangs exited the locker room with a little more kick, as they began to hit shots and close the gap on the Owls. With 35 seconds left, SMU cut Rice's lead to three, the closest margin since the opening minutes of the game.
But Rice dug into its game experience and gutted out the plays necessary to secure the win. The Owls made a key defensive stop to recapture the ball, forcing a long cross pass. They then beat the full-court Mustang press twice in a row, resulting in two open layups for freshman guard Jessica Goswitz. After weathering one more free throw and another SMU three-pointer, Rice hung on to capture the game 61-58.
Goswitz led the way with 15 points and five rebounds, with senior guard Tara Watts and sophomore guard D'Frantz Smart chipping in 11 each. Sophomore forward Megan Elliott added 10 to the total from the bench, helping to fill the gap created by sophomore forward Jackie Stanley's lack of playing time due to foul issues.
"A lot of our games lately have been really close, and it's nice to come out with a win, especially at home," Stanley said. "I think before we kind of folded up or we were afraid of it. I think we realized a lot of our games are going to be really close, and we just can't do that."
Saturday afternoon, the Owls had a much more difficult time with conference cellar-dweller Tulsa (6-12, 0-7 C-USA) than Williams would have liked. Rice, which shot an anemic 23 percent from the field in the first half, left the door wide open for a 16-2 Golden Hurricane run. This resulted in the Owls taking only a four-point lead into halftime, and led to their falling behind by five only a few minutes into the second half.
Williams called a timeout and attempted to rally his team into picking themselves up.
"We challenged them," Williams said. "We said we've worked too hard lately to lose it all here. They really responded well at that point."
With experience on their side, Rice dug down to rally against the lesser team. The Owls earned 30 points off free throws while their shooting percentage climbed to 30 percent by the end of the second half. After withstanding the Tulsa run, the women rebounded nicely, eventually closing out with a 63-56 victory.
Sophomore forward Jackie Stanley recorded 19 points and eight rebounds, despite going only 3-12 from the field. Goswitz poured in nine, with Smart managing to make one field goal and six free throws for eight points.
Yesterday, the Owls played a key rivalry game, taking on the University of Houston (10-10, 4-3 C-USA) at Tudor Fieldhouse. With a win, the Owls can jump into a large group of C-USA teams all standing with five wins, and this would put them within striking distance of a key first-round bye in the C-USA Championship.
Rice will next welcome the University of Alabama-Birmingham (10-9, 4-3 C-USA), another team right in the middle of the pack, on Sunday at 2 p.m. Certainly after this week, there should be some clarity in the C-USA playoff picture.
"[Houston] is a strange team, that they're 3-0 on the road but lost all their home games," Williams said. "We need to protect home court.
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