Cougar Basketball: Thanks for Playing Hillcats, Now Bring On Conference USA

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No. I said Hillcats, not Top Cat
Rogers State University is located just outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma. They've only been playing basketball for four years. They're part of the NAIA, not the NCAA. They've yet to defeat a Division I NCAA program in their history, and coming into last night's game with the University of Houston, they had already lost to the other Division I schools on their schedule, TCU and Oral Roberts.

In short, this is the type of game that the Houston Cougars should win easily. Yet if you've watched the Cougars over the last several years, you know that games the Cougars should win easily are generally games that the Cougars either lose or don't win easily. But last night wasn't one of those nights as the Cougars came out and put away the Rogers State Hillcats 85-48.

"The way that we have played, we're capable of playing a lot of people close," head coach James Dickey said. "So we can't take anybody for granted. But I was proud of the fact that I thought we played like we should in a game like this."

The Cougars jumped out to the 8-0 lead before a media timeout around the 17:11 mark, but then Rogers State mounted a brief comeback attempt, getting the score to 22-19 with 7:35 remaining in the first half. But they Hillcats would get no closer as the UH defense shut down the Rogers State offense and senior forward Maurice McNeil went to work.

The score was 38-24 at the half, with McNeil pacing the Cougars with 18 points and 9 rebounds. Freshman Alandise Harris, who got the start over McNeil because of a better week of practice was putting in some strong work down low, and Darian Thibodeaux was lighting it up from outside, hitting all four of his shots, including two from behind the three-point arc.

McNeil finished the game with his sixth double-double of the season as he led the team, once again, with 25 points and 13 rebounds. Harris finished the night with his first career double-double of 12 points and 12 rebounds, and Thibodeaux had 13 points and five assists as the Cougars so ran away with the game in the second half that they were able to play two walk-ons in the closing minutes.

"I'm really happy with the way we played, especially in the second half," Dickey said. "We didn't mean for the score to quite get out of hand like it did.... [but] I thought we had some guys do some really good things in the second half."

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Dear Rogers State, thanks for making the drive down from Oklahoma
But in many ways, this game wasn't so much about Rogers State as it was about next week when Conference USA play gets underway. Because no matter what has happened in November and December for the Cougars, it's the games that will be played from January through early March that will determine if the Cougars once again make the jump to the NCAA Tournament.

"We've still got to get better," McNeil said. "We've got to pick it up. This is the perfect time for us to come together."

The players and Coach Dickey were generally happy with their play in the game, but they're all well aware that the style of play and the intensity level will be much different once C-USA play gets under way. He wants to see his guards driving and getting to the free throw line, and he wants his players finishing strong and powering the ball to the basket while continuing to up their defensive play and energy level, especially when the Cougars are on the road.

"The intensity level is going to change," Dickey said. "The level of talent is certainly going to change, and being on the road has certainly not been to kind to us."

Part of Dickey's way of working on that intensity level is to reward the play in practice because he wants the intensity level to be the intensity level he sees in the game. Thus McNeil coming off of the bench while Harris started because while McNeil has been dominating in game situations so far, Harris has been outstanding in practice and Dickey wanted that effort rewarded.

"I use the term with us, be an everyday guy," Dickey said. "Now I don't mean that by being average. I mean bring it everyday in practice to get better. And what I wanted [McNeil] to understand that he needs to practice hard every day."

If McNeil's play off the bench was anything indication, along with the play of the rest of the guys that played, then it appears that message regarding intensity level is getting through. And with the Cougars opening conference play next week with a game in Southern Miss before returning home on January 8 to host the nationally ranked UCF Knights, then that intensity level is definitely going to have to be maintained.

SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: This Cougars held Rogers State to zero three-pointers. This was the first time in 387 games that an opponent has not hit a three against the Cougars, dating back to a 54-51 UH win over California on December 9, 1997....The 37 point margin of victory was the largest margin of victory for the Cougars since a 110-57 win over Alcorn State in 2008, and it was the largest victory margin for Coach Dickey since Texas Tech defeated UTSA 99-51 on December 17, 1996....Maurice McNeil's double-double was the 12th of his career, and this was the third time he has scored 20-plus points in a game....Forward Kendrick Washington did not play due to an infection in his elbow. He is taking antibiotics, and he is currently day-to-day.

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