Basketball season ends in heartbreak
From the outset of the 2011-2012 men's basketball season, the theme for Coach Ben Braun's team has been postseason or bust. But after a pair of losses this past week by a combined three points, these postseason aspirations are in jeopardy, as the Owls will now have to sit and wait for potential invitations from multiple playoff tournaments.
Rice entered the regular season finale last Saturday against Houston with a record of 17-13 after clinching the program's first winning season since 2005 with a win at the University of Texas-El Paso on February 29th. The Owls trailed the rival Cougars by 5 at the half, and fell behind by as many as 11 points with under 9 minutes to go before mounting a furious comeback in front of the home crowd on senior night. Ahmad Ibrahim's jumper with over 3 minutes left cut the deficit to 5, before Omar Oraby hit a pair of free throws to bring Rice within a single possession. Arsalan Kazemi then scored with 90 seconds left to make it a 1-point ballgame, and with 16 seconds left Dylan Ennis found Kazemi open underneath for a layup to give the Owls their first lead of the half, a 74-73 advantage. But leading by one with 5 seconds left, Rice inbounded the ball to senior Connor Frizzelle, expecting the Cougars to send Frizzelle to the free throw line in the game's waning seconds. But as Frizzelle caught the pass, he lost his footing and fell to the floor in the corner of the court. As he went to the ground, officials ruled that Frizzelle signaled for a timeout although the Owls did not have any left to use. The result was a technical foul against Frizzelle, giving the Cougars two free throws with 2.7 seconds left in the game. Houston's Darian Thibodeaux stepped to the line and hit both shots, giving Houston a dramatic 76-75 win in the regular season finale.
"Unfortunate that Connor slips and goes to the floor," Braun said. "I thought our team was equal to the challenge in the second half. We really bounced back, stormed back. We really put ourselves in position to win a game."
Finishing the regular season at 8-8 in the conference, Rice earned the #7 seed in the Conference-USA tournament, where they hosted 10th-seeded ECU in the tournament opener on Wednesday afternoon. The two teams were nip and tuck in the first half, with the Owls leading 33-32 at intermission behind 8 points and 9 boards from Kazemi. After the two teams shared five ties in the opening minutes of the second half, Dylan Ennis found Lucas Kuipers for a three, and Julian DeBose followed that up with a steal for a layup to put the Owls ahead 60-54 with 8 minutes left. But down the stretch, Rice was burdened by an especially untimely recurrence of a trend that has plagued the team all season, as the offense went for yet another lengthy stretch without a field goal. Consecutive baskets by the Pirates narrowed Rice's lead to just 1 with 3:18 left, before ECU took a 2-point lead on a layup off an offensive rebound with 57 seconds left. The Owls had to foul after missing the next time down, but after a pair of ECU free throws Kazemi scored on a dunk with 19 seconds left to keep it at a one-possession game. Kazemi's bucket was the Owls' first field goal in six and a half minutes, as Rice then sent ECU guard Miguel Paul to the line for a 1-and-1. Paul missed the front end, and after securing the rebound Rice had the ball with 6 seconds left, trailing 68-66. The inbounds pass went to Kuipers, who drove to the top of the key but left the game-tying jumper short, as the Pirates grabbed the rebound and held on for the tournament win.
With the first round exit, Rice is now forced to sit and wait for a potential invitation to one of a few postseason tournaments. At 17-15, the two most likely potential destinations appear to be the College Basketball Invitational and the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament. After the NCAA Tournament and National Invitational Tournament, these two tournaments compete with one another for the services of the top remaining Division I teams. The CBI is a single-elimination tournament with 16 teams invited, whereas the CollegeInsider.com Tournament invites 24 teams from mid-major conferences to compete. On Monday, Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle reported that both tournaments have contacted Rice to express their interest. With an invite, the Owls would advance to the postseason for the first time since playing in the NIT in 2005. The fields for both tournaments will be announced early this week, leaving Coach Braun and the Owls waiting through the weekend to find out the fate of their 2011-12 season.
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