GAME NOTES: The last-place Rice Owls hope to begin a shocking run as they tangle with the sixth-seeded Houston Cougars in the first round of the Conference USA Tournament at the BOK Center.
The winner of this contest will advance to the second round to take on the third-seeded Texas-El Paso Miners.
Rice finished in last place after it dropped its final 10 games of the season, including its regular season ending 77-71 setback to Tulsa. Luckily for Ben Braun's Owls, their only C-USA win came over Houston.Rice was an atrocious squad offensively during the regular season as it averaged just 60.3 ppg on 39.8 percent shooting from the field. It also dealt out only 11.3 assists and grabbed 25.5 rebounds per contest.
Against the Golden Hurricane on Saturday, Tamir Jackson led all scorers with 30 points for the Owls, who finished the regular season without an away or neutral victory. Julian DeBose finished with 17 points and Austin Ramljak chipped in with 15 for Rice. Jackson was the lone bright spot on the roster with 17.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per contest and DeBose helped some with 10.3 points and 4.3 boards per tilt. There were very few productive Owls beyond their top two.
This will be the third bout between these crosstown rivals this season. Rice won the first meeting, 79-69, at home in what turned out to be the Owls' only C-USA victory on the season. The Cougars exacted their revenge on March 6 with an 84-62 rout.
Houston built up some momentum heading into the postseason with three consecutive victories over Marshall, Rice and Tulane in its final three games. James Dickey's Cougars were one of the most explosive teams in the NCAA as they are the ranked seventh among Division I schools with 78.6 ppg and also place in the top 40 in rebounding (29th), assists (35th) and field-goal percentage (38th).
The Cougars' regular-season finale was a thriller as they trailed by one point with just seconds remaining before Joseph Young drew a foul and connected on a jumper to register a traditional-three-point-play that ended up being the game-winning play. Young finished the night with a game-high 32 points and nine assists, hitting all 13 of his opportunities at the free-throw line for the Cougars. TaShawn Thomas, Leon Gibson and Jherrod Stiggers all finished with 14 points. Young is one of the reasons Houston has been so consistently explosive offensively, as he nets 18.5 ppg with 43.4 percent efficiency from beyond the arc. Thomas posts 16.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per contest to serve as the interior presence.
The Cougars' off-night against the Owls was quickly forgotten after their more recent dominance of Rice. Houston seems like the darkhorse to make a deep run towards the NCAA Tournament after it finished the regular season with a wave of hard-fought victories.
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