Men's basketball goes over .500 in C-USA play
The men's basketball team defeated Southern Methodist University (11-15, 2-9 C-USA) on Saturday evening, moving to 15-11 overall and 6-5 in the conference, clinching the highest overall and conference win totals for the program since the 2006-07 season.
For all of the offensive purists, stop reading here.
In spite of going without a bucket in the game's final 9:48, the team played stingy defense throughout the game and held the Mustangs to just 32.5 percent shooting, which earned Rice a 43-39 win at Tudor Fieldhouse. To find the last time that Rice won a game in which it scored 43 points or fewer, one would have to go back to its 43-42 win over Texas A&M in February 1984.
For a game in which Coach Ben Braun surpassed the mark for most wins in a season during his tenure at Rice, it was only appropriate that the gems of Braun's first recruiting classes led the team to victory.
Back in the starting lineup for the third time in four games, junior guard Tamir Jackson led the game with 12 points and four assists.
"It always feels good to get a win," said Jackson after the game, a victory that puts Rice in sixth place in the conference with just five games remaining in the regular season. "For the older guys, we've won more games than we did last year, so that's a big thing. To go into the next game with a week off, over .500, that's big for us."
Jackson's three with under 10 minutes to play put Rice up 39-30 after the Owls led by six at the break, but SMU chipped away at its deficit in the game's final minutes. The Mustangs hit a deep ball at the 5:37 mark to pull within three points, prompting a response from another Owls vet, the recently embattled junior forward Arsalan Kazemi.
After a pass from Jackson following an offensive rebound, Kazemi was fouled on a drive to the hoop; he drained both free throws to put Rice up 42-37 with 4:40 to go. Kazemi finished the evening with 11 points and a game-high 10 rebounds, tying the all-time C-USA record with his 42nd career double-double.
"I was going through a really tough time," said Kazemi of his previous six-game stretch in which, hobbled by a knee injury, he has averaged a shade under eight points and eight rebounds per game. "Sometimes you don't get a call or your shot is just not falling. I didn't give up. I practiced with the team pretty hard and tried to just get back on track and be patient. I think that's what happened tonight."
Despite its poor offensive production down the stretch, Rice held SMU without a basket on its next four attempts before a jumper with 23 seconds left made it a 42-39 game. After then going one of two from the line to push the lead to four, Jackson stole the ball with eight seconds left before leading a fast break that led to an offensive foul. Trailing by two possessions, the Mustangs missed on a three with one second left, giving the ball back to the Owls and securing the 43-39 victory.
"This was a game that we had to perform defensively, and the difference for us was that we did a good job with [SMU leading scorer Robert] Nyakundi," Coach Braun said after his Owls held the conference's leading three-point shooter to just nine points after he burned Rice with 29 and 26 in two regular season games last year. "[The Mustangs] were taking away a lot of things that we normally get on teams. They did a really good job. Arsalan made some really big plays down the stretch, got to the line and scored. That to me was a huge key of the game."
With wins in four of its last five games, Rice now sits just a game away from the coveted fourth-place slot and the bye in the first round of the C-USA tournament that comes with it. The next three games for the Owls will be played against teams in the top four in the conference, including a game tomorrow night at the University of Tulsa (15-11, 8-4 C-USA), looking to avenge a 70-46 drubbing at Tudor Fieldhouse on Jan. 21.
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