ECU pulls away from men's netters, UH falls
A lot can be said about the personal strides made by members of the Rice basketball team this season.
Junior forward Arsalan Kazemi ranks in the top 10 nationally in both rebounds and double-doubles, leading Conference USA in both categories. In reaching the esteemed 1,000-point club this season, junior guard Tamir Jackson and senior guard Connor Frizzelle have remained reliable backcourt veterans, scoring at or near their consistent career averages.
The freshmen have met and exceeded expectations, with the class accounting for 44 percent of the team's starts in conference play. Freshman guard Dylan Ennis has locked down the top point guard position, as he has started 18 of 25 games. Freshman forward Julian DeBose has a game-winning shot in conference play to his name, the second buzzer-beater for Ricethis season. Sophomore center Omar Oraby has taken a huge step forward in his development, proving to be one of Head Coach Ben Braun's top bodies off the bench, and is on track to set the single-season school record for blocks in a season.
With their individual successes, the Owls entered the week in the middle of a wide-open C-USA race at 4-4 in the conference and 13-10 overall. After a three-game losing streak, Rice was riding a wave of momentum, posting wins against Tulane University (15-8, 3-6 C-USA) and the University of Texas at El Paso (10-13, 3-6 C-USA), with East Carolina University (12-10, 3-6 C-USA) next on the schedule.
Facing the struggling Pirates on Saturday, the Owls were unable to keep their winning streak alive due to a second-half collapse, illustrating the reality that has plagued the team all season long. Despite individual achievements and stretches of impressive play, key injuries and inconsistent production have prevented Rice from playing its best team ball for an extended stretch.
The first half against ECU belonged to Jackson, who has taken on a new role as the team's sixth man for most of conference play. In his best half of play this season, Jackson scored 15 points on 6-8 shooting to go along with five rebounds and three assists, keeping his team within a point of the halftime lead, with Kazemi limited due to foul trouble.
Rice took a 53-52 lead with 13:07 left on a bucket by Dylan Ennis, who finished with a team- and career-high 21 points. With their leading scorer and rebounder struggling with a knee injury, the Owls failed to produce second-chance points and went on another lengthy second-half field goal drought. Ennis' three with 7:33 remaining brought an end to a five-minute spell without a basket, but Rice had already fallen behind 64-58 to the hosting Pirates. A pair of free throws from Jackson cut the deficit to 69-64 with 4:26 left, but ECU answered with the dagger two possessions later. Rice was unable to secure the defensive rebound after a three-point attempt from the Pirates rimmed out. The loose ball ended up in the hands of guard Paris Campbell, who drained an open three with 3:25 to go to make it a 73-64 game. The Owls, who were outscored 14-2 in second-chance points, faded in the final minutes and fell on the road 82-68.
The backcourt duo of Jackson and Ennis finished with 38 of the team's 68 points, but Rice was unable to put forth a convincing team effort to extend its win streak to three games. The troubling key to the team's up-and-down play in the conference has been Kazemi's knee injury. Since the injury Jan. 14 against Tulane, Kazemi has missed a game and has averaged just 7.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in the contests he started. Rice is 3-4 over that stretch, as the Owls have sorely missed the paint presence of their best player.
Rice was without its best effort from Kazemi again on Wednesday night in a rivalry game at the University of Houston (11-12, 3-7 C-USA) but put forth a cohesive team effort en route to a 79-71 win in the season's first crosstown clash.
The Owls got off to a turbulent start, missing their first eight shots and going down 13-0. Jackson, who replaced the suspended freshman forward Ahmad Ibrahim in the starting lineup, connected from deep nearly eight minutes into the game to put Rice on the scoreboard, starting a run in which the Owls hit eight of their next 10 shots to cut the deficit to 20-18. A three-pointer from Jarelle Reischel with 3:27 in the half gave Rice its first lead of the game as the Owls recovered from their early shooting woes to take a 35-34 lead into the break.
After the teams exchanged the lead eight times in the second half, Rice went on a 9-0 run starting with a pair of free throws from Oraby to give the visitors a 65-64 lead. Oraby scored five of Rice's next seven points to give the Owls a 72-64 advantage with 2:35 to go. The Cougars would scored with a minute left to pull within six, but a Jackson steal led to a layup for Frizzelle with under 20 seconds remaining, icing the game and clinching Rice's third straight win against its bitter rivals.
The balanced offensive output was led by Reischel, who finished the night with a game high 16 points. The veteran backcourt combo of Frizzelle and Jackson added 13 points each, and Ennis contributed with 10 points and six assists.
The win over Houston demonstrates the team's talent level and effectiveness when the contributions come on a more consistent basis. There is no doubt that Rice has the pieces to make a run in the regular season's final six games, but it will need to replicate Wednesday night's team effort more often to reach its potential.
At 14-11 overall and 5-5 in the C-USA, Rice hosts Southern Methodist University (10-13, 2-7 C-USA) tomorrow night at 7 p.m.
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