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Men's basketball rediscovers winning ways, defeats Middle Tennessee

Courtesy Rice Athletics

By Madison Buzzard     1/24/19 11:18pm

Men’s basketball improved its Conference USA record to 3-4 and halted its three game losing streak by defeating Middle Tennessee State University 79-68 on Thursday at Tudor Fieldhouse.

Rice suffered heartbreaking defeats in its prior two games: in each contest, Rice lost by one point as a result of a buzzer-beating, game winning shot. Head coach Scott Pera said he was proud of the way his team overcame those losses to defeat Middle Tennessee.

“I don’t know too many teams, certainly in my years of coaching, that have gone through what we have gone through the last two Saturdays,” Pera said. “For [our players] to be as focused and resilient as they have been this past week in practice, it makes me proud to be their coach.”

Defensively, the Owls excelled against the Blue Raiders. Middle Tennessee shot only 40 percent from the field and 31 percent from three-point range, committed 13 turnovers and shot only 14 free-throw attempts. Rice freshman center Quentin Millora-Brown notched three blocks and eight rebounds and freshman guard Chris Mullins snatched three steals. The Blue Raiders’ leading scorer this season, Antonio Green, made only four of 22 field goal attempts and was held scoreless in the second half. Pera said his team produced defensive effort and intensity.

“Guys made plays late,” Pera said. “[Freshman forward] Drew [Peterson] had a heck of a drive late, [graduate forward] Jack [Williams] hit a huge three, Chris played tremendous down the stretch and Quentin’s defense was unreal in the paint in the second half. A ton of guys contributed.”

The score at halftime was 34-30 in favor of Middle Tennessee. Blue Raiders forward Reggie Scurry nearly secured a first half double-double with 12 points and 8 rebounds, and Rice allowed Middle Tennessee to score 22 points in the paint, score 12 points off turnovers and grab eight offensive rebounds in the first half. Rice freshman guard Trey Murphy III lifted the Owls with 10 first half points. According to Murphy, Rice started the game sluggish.

“We came out in the first half just a little flat,” Murphy said. “Then coach [Pera] was telling us we needed to play harder. At halftime, [Pera] said we needed to out rebound [Middle Tennessee State]. We knew that the second half would be dictated by us playing hard and getting rebounds.”

At the beginning of the second half, Middle Tennessee State edged its lead to seven after a layup and free throw conversion by Scurry. But Rice fired back: Mullins downed two 3-point shots and a free throw to nudge the game in the Owls favor, then Murphy hit one of his team-high four 3-point makes to stretch Rice’s lead to four.

Middle Tennessee battled to take a 55-54 lead after another three-point play by Scurry with eight minutes left in the second half. Then Murphy hit a 3-pointer, Adams made a jumper, Williams rattled off his own five-point run, Peterson made a layup and Adams made four free throws to cement a 16-0 run to make the score 70-55 in favor of Rice. 

That score would prove insurmountable for the Blue Raiders, who faced intense defensive pressure from Rice’s freshman guards: Murphy III, Mullins and Payton Moore. Murphy said Moore in particular was excellent defensively.

“[In the] last few minutes of the game we forced them into really tough shots,” Murphy said. “Payton came into the game and he was able to get great ball pressure and we played great post defense as well. Coach always tells us [on defense], the five of us are not on an island, but we are a fist.”

According to Pera, his freshman guards were equally helpful on offense late in the second half.

“We like having multiple ball handlers on the floor, because when teams are behind, they press,” Pera said. “Look, some guys on our team need to get better [at handling the ball], and they will. But it is nice having several guys who can handle the ball on the floor at the end of the game when we are up by double digits.”

Murphy finished his second consecutive game with 18 points and four three-point makes, both career highs. Pera said his offense can continue to rely upon Murphy if he finds open looks.

“Look, if [Murphy’s] going to get wide open threes, he can shoot 30 of them,” Pera said. “He is an incredible shooter. Our guys did a great job of getting him looks. I also thought we did a great job of making the extra pass. This game was really important to our guys tonight. I mean, every game is important, but tonight our guys really wanted to prove that what happened before was a fluke.”

The Owls look to improve to .500 against C-USA opponents while facing the University of Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday at Tudor Fieldhouse.

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