Owls embarrassed at home, lose at Memphis
If the pain of last Wednesday's buzzer-beating overtime loss to the University of Alabama at Birmingham after blowing a 17-point lead wasn't enough for the Rice men's basketball team, the injury to leading scorer and rebounder Arsalan Kazemi in the game's final minutes all but assured that the aftermath wouldn't be any prettier.
The buzz regarding Kazemi's knee injury was instigated by a tweet from the Rice forward last week stating concerns that he may have suffered a torn meniscus. As word spread that the Owls may be missing their best player for an extended period of time, all attention was focused on the team's starting lineup for the home game against UAB. Fears were temporarily alleviated when Kazemi took the court on Wednesday night versus the Blazers, occupying his customary spot in the starting lineup and playing 28 minutes. Worries arose once again when Kazemi went to the ground after boxing out for a rebound with 52 seconds left and hobbled off the court, favoring his injured knee and sitting out the rest of the game. After undergoing an MRI on the injured knee, Kazemi was ruled out of Rice's game last Saturday at Tudor Fieldhouse against Tulsa as the team waited for the test results.
With the long-term effect of the knee injury still unknown, the short-term impact for Coach Ben Braun was unmistakably damaging. Facing a Tulsa team with three rotation players listed at 6-foot-11-inches or taller, the absence of the team's top rebounder and scorer left a gaping void in the middle.
With sophomore Omar Oraby starting in Kazemi's place, the Owls and Hurricane played a nip-and-tuck first half, with the lead changing hands frequently as each side battled for points in the paint. The teams combined for just two three-pointers in the first 20 minutes, making for a low-scoring first half in which the visitors used their size advantage to take a 25-22 halftime lead. Despite shooting just 35 percent in the half, and with veterans Lucas Kuipers, Connor Frizzelle and Tamir Jackson combining for just one point, Rice went into the locker room well within striking distance of the Hurricane.
In the second half, the Owls were not able to withstand a poor shooting night from their veterans, already missing the team's leading scorer and rebounder. With Oraby limited to just four minutes of action in the half because of foul trouble, Tulsa took advantage of the size mismatch with a 22-8 run during which Rice did not make a field goal for over 10 minutes. Jarelle Reischel, who led the team with 11 points in his best game of the season, hit a jumper with 5:08 left to end the drought with Tulsa already well ahead, 56-37.
The Owls went just 8-29 from the field in the second half and had six shots blocked, with the cold shooting inflating the margin to as much as 28 before settling at a final score of 70-46. Kuipers, Frizzelle, and Jackson went a combined 0-14 from the field for a total of three points as Rice was outrebounded 43-28 in the blowout loss.
"Tulsa didn't give us anything easy at the glass. We were able to beat their initial pressure, but we didn't do a good job of making the next play," Coach Braun said after the game, a loss that dropped Rice to 2-3 in the conference this season. "Having to play without [Kazemi] gave us a couple of looks that we weren't accustomed to. This was a very tough game to play without him."
Though disappointed in his team's performance, Braun did provide some good news in the post-game press conference regarding his injured star. An earlier MRI revealed no structural damage or tear to Kazemi's knee, allowing him to resume practice and play as the team traveled to Memphis on Wednesday to face the C-USA favorite Tigers.
A disturbing trend for the Rice offense continued on Wednesday evening as the team opened the game on another lengthy field-goal drought, this one lasting for the game's first 7:25. The talented Memphis Tigers took advantage, opening up an early 19-10 lead and keeping the Owls at bay for the first half. Trailing 35-23 at halftime, Rice surrendered 10 of the first 14 points in the second half and was unable to dig out of the deficit against the perennial C-USA power. Avenging a loss to Rice last season, the first win for Rice against Memphis in school history, Memphis led by as many as 27 points before closing out a 73-51 win at the FedEx Forum. Kazemi scored just four points in his first game back from his injury. The Owls were led by Jackson, Frizzelle and Oraby, who each contributed with 10 points.
The game took an ugly turn with 7:21 left and Memphis leading 58-36, when Tamir Jackson committed a hard foul on Memphis guard Joe Jackson, who elevated for a dunk on a fast break. Tamir Jackson was given a flagrant-two foul and by NCAA rule was ejected from the game. Three Tigers were also ejected for leaving the bench in the scuffle that ensued as Memphis Coach Josh Pastner got in between players to prevent the altercation from escalating.
At 2-4 in the C-USA and 11-10 overall, Rice hosts Tulane tomorrow night at 7 p.m. before taking on the university of Texas-El-Paso Wednesday, as Coach Braun looks to get his team back to the .500 mark in the conference.
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