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Friday, December 01, 2023 — Houston, TX

‘This is March Madness, right?’: MBB narrowly defeats UTSA in C-USA opener


Courtesy Conference USA

By Daniel Schrager     3/9/23 3:22pm

If college basketball games lasted 40 minutes and half a second, the Rice men’s basketball team’s season would be over right now. After leading nearly the entire game against the No. 11 seed University of Texas at San Antonio in their opening game of the Conference USA tournament, the No. 6 seed Owls allowed UTSA to close the margin to one before guard Japhet Medor drove the length of the court with time expiring, getting his layup to roll in. The initial ruling was that Medor had gotten his shot off just before the clock hit zero, but the call was reversed after a two-and-a-half minute review, giving Rice a 72-71 win.

“This is March Madness, right?” head coach Scott Pera said. “And that was some madness at the end of that game.”

Prior to the Roadrunners’ late surge, Rice had been in control for the entire game. The Owls jumped out to a 21-10 lead behind nine early points from sophomore guard and forward Cameron Sheffield. Though UTSA made a slight dent in the lead, Rice went into halftime up nine.

“I thought Cam got us started,” Pera said. “We knew they were going to leave him open. He's a really good shooter. We were confident he was going to get us going, and he did.”

After the half, it took the Roadrunners just seven minutes to erase the deficit. UTSA scored 13 of the first 17 points of the half, including five from Medor, and the game was tied with 13 minutes remaining. Six points in 42 seconds from freshman guard Mekhi Mason helped Rice reclaim the lead, but UTSA wouldn’t go away. The Roadrunners closed the gap to one before junior guard Quincy Olivari, who led the Owls with 18 points on the day, gave Rice a bit more breathing room with two quick baskets. According to Pera, the Roadrunners’ defensive adjustments in the second half gave Olivari a chance to take over.

“They changed some coverages and did some different things,” Pera said. “Q hit some big shots in the second half, when it was one defense they were playing [and] we figured we could get him some pull ups.”

Down by three in the final two minutes, UTSA had a chance to tie but junior guard Travis Evee stripped the ball from a driving Medor, which turned into an acrobatic Olivari layup at the other end to make the lead five. Evee snatched the ball from Medor once again on the next possession, seemingly putting the game away. But a Sheffield miss at 36 seconds turned into a quick UTSA basket. The Roadrunners then trapped Mason in the corner on the ensuing inbounds play, jarring the ball loose and forcing a jump ball. With the possession arrow pointing in UTSA’s direction, the Roadrunners got the ball back down by three with a chance to tie. Pera’s defense didn’t let the Roadrunners get even a look at a game-tying three, but they settled for an uncontested layup to cut the deficit to one with eight seconds remaining.

Olivari got the inbounds pass and was immediately fouled, sending him to the free-throw line for a one-and-one. The normally reliable free-throw shooter, who shot 80% from the line this year, missed. According to Olivari, the shot felt uncomfortable before it even left his hands.

“When I touched the ball, I knew it was slippery in my hand,” Olivari said. “I was like, ‘This just doesn't feel good.’ I didn't feel comfortable, and then I missed it as a result. But that's all mental. I just gotta be stronger at the line and finish.”

The miss gave the Roadrunners the ball back with seven seconds to find a game-winner. But Medor took seven-and-a-fraction seconds to get his shot off, and the Owls lived to see another day.

Rice will now turn their attention to the No. 3 seed University of Alabama at Birmingham. The Blazers beat the Owls by 28 two weeks ago, behind 32 points from guard Jordan Walker. In their previous meeting in late January, UAB won by a slightly more modest 18. The game tips off at 8:30 pm and will be broadcast on ESPN+.

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