DeBose seals UTEP victory for streaking Owls
Basketball in its simplest form is a game of runs, and the men's basketball team found itself mired in a brutal one as it returned home from Memphis last Wednesday night after a drubbing at the hands of the University of Memphis (15-7, 6-2 C-USA).
After falling by double digits to the Tigers, their sixth loss in eight games following a pair of disappointing home results, the Owls fell to ninth in the conference despite the team's clear talent improvement over years past.
With junior star forward Arsalan Kazemi hobbled by a bum knee and junior backcourt staple Tamir Jackson facing a one-game suspension from the league due to a flagrant foul in the Memphis game, Rice entered the critical weekend matchup against Tulane University (14-9, 2-7 C-USA) with minimal contribution expected from arguably the two best players during Head Coach Ben Braun's tenure at South Main. Missing crucial veterans and facing a team against whom they needed a miraculous buzzer-beater to take down two weeks prior, the Owls needed a few players to step up to halt the squad's recent Conference USA swoon.
On Saturday night at Tudor Fieldhouse, the spotlight performance came from an unlikely source. Having reached double figures in points just one time since Christmas, freshman wing Ahmad Ibrahim erupted for a career-high 23 as the Owls shot 50 percent from the field for the game in a slump-busting 88-74 win over the Green Wave.
"When I hit my first three-pointer, I knew I was going to have a good game," said Ibrahim of his career night. "My team found me whenever it was easy to score. Coach Braun drew the right plays at the right time. It was just easy to score tonight."
That first three from Ibrahim capped off a 10-2 run to open the game for Rice in what was a high-octane first half for both offenses. Senior point guard Connor Frizzelle, the team's most consistent performer this season, paced the Owls' first -half offense with 13 points on 5-8 shooting. Rice would go for 45 in the first half but allowed the Green Wave to shoot 54 percent and led by just seven at intermission.
In the second half, the home team came up with timely buckets and increased the defensive intensity, avoiding lengthy runs of poor offensive play that doomed them in home games against the University of Alabama at Birmingham (8-13, 3-5 C-USA) and the University of Tulsa (13-9, 6-2 C-USA). After a Tulane three-pointer at 11:36 cut the lead to five, Rice quickly answered with consecutive scores from Frizzelle and sophomore center Omar Oraby, who finished with 16 points, to keep the lead in double digits. The Owls again responded to a push from the visitors with under six minutes left, when Ibrahim ignited a 9-0 run with a pair of jumpers to go up 77-60 and effectively put the game on ice. Ibrahim scored 10 points in the game's final six minutes, but was not the only freshman to step up to the call for the short-handed and slumping men's basketball team. Freshman point guard Dylan Ennis, who has secured a starting role in the team's backcourt, dished out 11 assists to go with 10 points on the night, the most assists for a Rice player in more than five years. Frizzelle finished with a season-high 22 points on an efficient 8-11 shooting as Rice prevailed 88-74 to battle to 3-4 in the C-USA.
"In the second half, our guys came out and really clamped down defensively," Coach Braun said of his team's effort in completing the season sweep of Tulane. "The difference in the game was our defensive second half. It was a strong team effort, and it was really good to see our team put that game away."
Hosting the University of Texas at El Paso (10-12, 3-5 C-USA) on Wednesday, Rice played its fourth C-USA game of the season that was decided by a shot in the game's final seconds. Unlike the previous home games against Marshall University (14-8, 5-3 C-USA) and UAB, it was this time the Owls who hit a shot with time expiring to cap a scintillating victory at Tudor Fieldhouse. The hero for Braun's team was freshman Julian DeBose, whose pull-up jumper with 0.2 seconds remaining broke a deadlock and clinched the victory, the team's second straight win to get back to .500 in the C-USA standings. It was DeBose's only field goal of the game.
In a game that featured 26 lead changes, Rice went up by as many as seven when Frizzelle hit a jump shot with 3:07 left in the game. After a pair of free throws from the visiting Miners, the Owls committed back-to-back turnovers that led to UTEP scores, making it a 72-71 game with under a minute left. Jackson was fouled with 24 seconds left in the game, but missed the front end of the one-and-one and committed a foul on the ensuing rebound. UTEP would make both free throws to take a 73-72 lead, but out of a timeout Frizzelle hit Kazemi on a roll to the basket for a go-ahead basket and a foul. Kazemi's free throw capped the three-point play and put the Owls up by two with just 15 seconds left.
After advancing the ball to take a timeout with 11 seconds left, the Miners ran a backdoor screen that resulted in a good look at the rim. The layup attempt did not fall, but forward Cedrick Lang was at the rim for an easy putback with 7.8 seconds on the clock, tying the game and setting Rice up for the thrilling finish.
Without any timeouts left, Ennis took the inbounds pass up the right sideline, where he was boxed in by two defenders. After crossing midcourt, Ennis crossed over to his left and lofted a pass across the court to DeBose, who caught the pass on the left wing inside the three-point arc. DeBose took a dribble toward the rim but was forced to pull up as he was met by two defenders. DeBose pulled up and double-pumped in the air with a hand in his face, releasing a shot from the elbow that fell through with just 0.2 seconds left on the clock. "My first thought was to try to get to the rim," DeBose said of the game-winner. "[The defenders] cut me off, so I had to pull up. I couldn't see the rim at first, but when I double pumped, [the defender] moved to try to get the block, and I got a good look at the rim."
DeBose hit the biggest shot of the night for the Owls, but was aided by another big performance from a fellow rookie. Freshman forward Jarelle Reischel went for a career-high 20 points for the evening to go along with six boards and five steals. Adding to the run of clutch play from the freshman class, Ennis led the team with six assists and pulled down six boards, many in the game's final minutes. Kazemi returned to his normal form, scoring 20 points on just eight shots to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.
At 4-4 and 13-10 overall, Rice now sits at sixth place in the conference with games this week at East Carolina (11-10, 2-6 C-USA) and crosstown rival Houston (12-10, 4-5 C-USA).
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