Owl men lose to Marshall, hold off SMU on road
Entering the winter break with a 6-2 record, Head Coach Ben Braun and the Rice men's basketball team went to work against an increasingly difficult non-conference schedule following an 11-day layoff for final exams.
After a 109-51 rout of Louisiana College on Dec. 14, the fourth-largest point total in school history, the team faced back-to-back tests against Lamar and Temple. Hosting one of the favorites to win the Southland Conference, Rice fell behind 42-35 in a first half in which their opponents made eight of nine attempts from three. The Cardinals would push the lead to 16 points with under nine minutes to play before Rice mounted a comeback led by juniors Arsalan Kazemi (23 points, 12 rebounds) and Tamir Jackson (24 points). Kazemi's fastbreak layup would close the deficit to just six with over three minutes to play, but the Owls could not close the gap due in part to Lamar's 37-44 clip from the free throw line on the evening. Rice senior Connor Frizzelle surpassed the 1,000-point mark in his career during the game, becoming the 29th player in Rice history to reach the milestone.
After falling to 7-3, the Owls welcomed Atlantic-10 contending Temple to Tudor Fieldhouse on Dec. 19. For the second time in as many games, Rice fell behind early as the visitors took a 36-23 lead with time winding down in the first half. But Rice mounted its comeback a little earlier this time, as freshman Jarelle Reischel led a 9-0 run to make it a 36-32 game at the half. Lucas Kuipers, who led Rice with 16 points on the night, hit a deep ball to start the second half, but Temple quickly responded with a run that extended their lead to double digits. The hosts would make another run late in the game, but shot just 35 percent in the second half, falling 77-70 in the battle of the Owls.
After seeing consecutive second-half rallies fall short at home, Rice bounced back admirably on Dec. 22 to notch one of the best non-conference wins of the Ben Braun era, a 65-58 victory over Texas A&M University in College Station. Ranked 22nd in the country just a week before, the Aggies led 26-23 late in the first half before consecutive threes from Kuipers and Frizzelle capped a 10-0 Rice run, giving the Owls a seven-point lead at the half. A pair of free throws from Jackson extended the lead to 13 points early in the second half, but Rice went without a field goal for the next five minutes as Texas A&M cut its deficit to just six points. Searching for a response to the run, Coach Braun found his unsung hero in freshman Ahmad Ibrahim, who would score nine of the next 11 points for Rice, including a clutch three with four minutes left to extend the lead back to 11 points. This time protecting a lead in the game's waning minutes, the Owls knocked down free throws and rebounded the ball to secure one of the program's best wins in years. Jackson led Rice with 13 points on the evening, as Kuipers and Ibrahim contributed 12 each in the victory. The win snapped multiple noteworthy streaks for Texas A&M, including a 67-game non-conference home winning streak.
Following a 78-66 win against Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and former Rice head coach Willis Wilson to improve to 9-4, the Owls hit the road for games against Texas and Texas Christian University to wrap up their non-conference schedule. Playing in Austin on New Years' Eve, the Owls erased an eight-point halftime deficit behind the hot shooting of Frizzelle in the early minutes of the second half. Frizzelle's three with under 12 minutes left pulled Rice to within two points, but a cold shooting stretch kept the Owls at bay. The team made just three of their final 17 shots, as the Longhorns pulled away late for a 73-59 win.
Rice then traveled to Fort Worth for its first game of 2012 and the finale of their non-conference slate. After opening the game on an 18-8 run, the Owls surrendered their lead before pulling back ahead 33-28 at the half. The game would open up in the second, as the two teams shot a combined 53 percent from the field. Leading the scoring charge for Rice in the second half were freshman Dylan Ennis, who scored 17 points in the final 20 minutes, and Kazemi, who finished the evening with 17 points and 14 boards. Jackson's layup with just over five minutes left pushed the Rice lead to six, but the Horned Frogs quickly responded with back to back threes to tie the game at 69 with 2:32 left. After a Rice miss on the other end, TCU hit another deep ball with 90 seconds remaining to take a three point lead. The Owls got three looks at the hoop on their next possession but could not convert, as they were then forced to foul with under a minute left. TCU would go 6-8 from the line in the final minute as Rice fell 78-74, concluding conference play with a mark of 9-6.
In the Conference USA opener the Owls played host to Marshall University, one of the favorites to contend with the University of Memphis and the University of Southern Mississippi for the conference title this season. Little separated the two teams in the first half, as the Thundering Herd took a two-point lead into the intermission. Marshall held onto a slim lead in the second half until Kazemi's putback dunk tied the game up with 6:28 left. Kazemi, who finished with 15 points on the night, joined Frizzelle as a member of the 1,000-point club, the 30th player in Rice history to do so. After a stop on the other end, sophomore Omar Oraby, who led Rice with 16 points and 10 rebounds off the bench, converted on two free throws to give the Owls their first lead since the game's opening minutes. Marshall took the lead back following consecutive buckets, before Oraby again hit a pair of free throws to draw the Owls even with 2:55 left. Each team missed its next two shot attempts, giving Marshall the ball in a tie game with under 20 seconds left. Defending the ball on the late possession, Dylan Ennis forced a turnover with 11 seconds left, and Kazemi was fouled in pursuit of the loose ball. Kazemi was given two free throw attempts to break the tie but was unable to hit on either attempt from the line. Marshall's Shaquille Johnson corralled the rebound and took the ball down the court, driving baseline for a layup with two seconds left to put Marshall up 63-61. A desperation heave from Rice fell short, as the Owls dropped their conference opener in heartbreaking fashion. After dropping to 9-7, Rice bounced back on Wednesday by defeating SMU on the road by a score of 68-52. The Owls got out to an early 19-7 lead behind a balanced scoring attack from the starters, which included Ibrahim with Kuipers, Frizzelle, Ennis, and Kazemi. SMU would fight back to cut the differential to six points at the half, but Ibrahim and Kazemi would lead a 16-5 run early in the second to put Rice up by 16. The pairing would combine for 35 of Rice's 68 points on the evening, as the Owls cruised in the second half to their first conference win of the season.
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