Owls Soar and Coogs Plunge As the Regular Season Ends

Rice tip off.JPG
John Royal
The Cougars and Owls tip off to begin Saturday's game
Maurice McNeil made a lay-up 34 seconds into Houston's Saturday game against the Rice Owls. This shot put the Cougars up 2-0. The Cougars never again led in the game, and except for one brief shining moment when they tied the game at 10-10 with 15:27 remaining in the first half, the Cougars were never even tied with the Owls.

The Cougars (12-17, 4-12), needless to say, lost to the Rice Owls (13-17, 5-11) by the score of 72-57, bringing to an end what has been a disastrous regular season for Houston. It wasn't really that long ago that the Cougars got off to a 3-1 start in conference play and appeared to be on the way to becoming that little team that could. But then things fell apart, and things fell apart quickly.

There were player suspensions, injuries, players leaving the team. The Cougars appeared to lose faith in themselves, as players, and as a team. They forgot how to shoot the basketball and, at times, played a game as lifeless as the "crowds" so often found inside Hofheinz Pavilion.

This wasn't the season the Houston Cougars wanted to have. But teams don't often get the seasons they want by just wanting those seasons. Those seasons have to be earned, and the Cougars just weren't up to earning that kind of season.

The Rice Owls were the clearly superior team on Saturday. Superior in talent. Superior in will. Superior in effort.

This has been a tough season for the Owls as well. There were high hopes for the Owls, a team returning some solid senior talent coupled with stud sophomore forward Arsalan Kazemi, sophomore point guard Tamir Jackson and junior guard Connor Frizzelle. This was supposed to be a team that, if things broke their way, could possibly contend for the title of a weak Conference USA.

The effort was there most nights for the Owls, but they too often ended up on the wrong end of close games. And on Saturday, the Owls took out their frustrations on a Cougar team playing out the string.

The Cougars didn't execute their offense. They didn't execute their defense. They knew what the Owls were going to do on the floor, and how the Owls were going to do it. They knew it. They just couldn't do anything about it.

"We watched obviously -- we went back and looked at what Rice did to us over there [in an early season loss]," Cougars head coach James Dickey said. "We knew that they were going to double-team the low post. We're not a dominant inside team. We like to play inside-out. But when they double-team that low post, you've got to find the open man. There's somebody open. I know it didn't look like we had a strategy, but we certainly worked on some things -- we made some ill-advised passes..."

Tellis FB.JPG
John Royal
Cougar guard Cory Tellis leads a first half fast break

But just as the Cougars knew what Rice was going to do, Rice knew what Houston was going to do, and unlike Houston, the Owls made the Cougars pay, and pay big. The Owls guards knew they would be overplayed, and they knew their big guys, especially forward Lucas Kuipers, would be open for deep jumpers off of pick-and-rolls. So find Kuipers they did, which resulted in Kuipers killing the Coogs with deep three pointers throughout the first half.

"We knew their big men was going to hedge hard and leave Lucas open for the step-back," Jackson said. "So we just wanted to run anything to get a pick-and-roll off of him so he could step back and get an open shot. And that's what we executed."

Senior UH guard Zamal Nixon once again struggled with his team's inability to execute, though if any player on the team did execute, it was Nixon, who finished his career by scoring 18 points and dishing out four assists.

"I think the struggle is just a lack of execution," Nixon said. "We prepare well. We have good practices. Our coaches do a good job of letting us know the strengths and weaknesses of each player on every team. And we just haven't been doing a good job of carrying our defensive assignments into our games."

Kazemi Harris.JPG
John Royal
Rice forward Arsalan Kazemi does battle against Houston forward Alandise Harris

But it's all over now. Both Houston and Rice now head off to El Paso for the Conference USA tournament, where both will be playing on Wednesday. Rice, the tourney's number 10 seed, will play SMU while Houston, the 11th seed, will face Marshall. If they win, they play once more. If they lose, there is no more.

Nixon equated the tournament to a new season. A chance for the Cougars to start over and erase the nightmare they have endured this season. And for Jackson, it's another chance to prove that Rice is just as good as the rest of the conference, that if they play their game, then they can't be defeated.

That will be determined on Wednesday. But for now, it's all about what happened Saturday. And that was a Rice win and a Houston loss.

SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The Owls swept a two-game series from the Cougars for the first time since 1993, and for just the second time in the history of the series between these two teams....Rice center Trey Stanton took a hard fall in the second half and banged his head on the court. He did not return to the game, and Rice hopes to learn today if he will be available for action on Wednesday night...Congratulations to coach Todd Buchanan and the UH women's basketball team, which finished the C-USA regular season with a perfect 16-0 record. They will be the number one seed in C-USA's women's tourney, also being played in El Paso and also starting on Wednesday. Rice's women's squad is the three seed.

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