MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- A four-minute, 17-0 Middle Tennessee run turned a two-point lead into a 15-point deficit that Rice could not get itself out of as the Owls fell, 87-73, Saturday night at the Murphy Center.
Max Guercy led the Owls with 20 points, his first 20-point game of the season and sixth of his career. Marquez Letcher-Ellis had 13 points and Connor Cashaw had 12. Marcus Evans and Egor Koulechov added 11 points apiece, while Koulechov added a game-high nine rebounds.
"They punched us in the mouth and we didn't respond," said Rice head coach Mike Rhoades. "It was 16-14 (and) we were winning. But they had a (17-0) run and we didn't respond really well. We didn't follow the game plan today and that was disappointing. We've got to be more aggressive. We were within earshot a couple of times and shot ourselves in the foot."
Middle Tennessee scored the first seven points of the game. Koulechov got Rice on the board with a layup. Reggie Upshaw made a jumper, but Koulechov made a three and then found Letcher-Ellis for a three-point play, cutting the deficit to 9-8, 4:13 into the game.
The teams traded layups more than a minute later. After a stop, Evans took the ball the length of the court for a layup and Rice's first lead of the game, 12-11. Jaqawn Raymond gave the Blue Raiders the lead back with a three, but Evans hit Koulechov under the basket for a layup to tie the game. Two minutes later, Bishop Mency found Drone for a layup and a 16-14 Rice lead with 11:21 to play in the half.
However, the Owls went cold offensively. Three straight turnovers led to six MT points. Rice then missed four straight baskets and the Blue Raiders turned a four-point lead into a 31-16 margin. Guercy stopped the bleeding with two free throws. After Upshaw made a layup, Drone made a jumper to make it 33-20 with five minutes to play.
Two baskets pushed the lead to 18 before Guercy made one-of-two free throws, snapping a streak of 24 straight made from the charity stripe. MT pushed the lead to 20. Evans then made four straight free throws, but the Blue Raiders closed the half with a pair of baskets and Rice trailed 45-25 at the break, its largest halftime deficit of the season.
The first eight minutes of the second half saw Rice get no closer than 18 points. With the score 64-46 and 11:50 to play, Letcher-Ellis made a jumper and following the play Darnell Harris was called for a technical foul. Guercy made both free throws and then Letcher-Ellis made another layup. Mency then stole the ball from Quavius Copeland and hit Letcher-Ellis for another layup, pulling the Owls within 64-54 and forcing a Middle Tennessee timeout.
Buford was fouled and made one-of two free throws, but Guercy found Letcher-Ellis for another layup, getting Rice to within single digits for the first time since the midway point of the first half. MT then scored five straight points. Letcher-Ellis made a layup and Cashaw made one-of-two free throws to make it 70-59 with 7:25 remaining. But, that's as close as Rice would get as the Blue Raiders went on a 10-2 run to seal the game.
Rice shot 49.0% (24-of-49) from the field, including 66.7% in the second half. However, the Owls were just 5-of-15 (33.3%) from three and 20-of-29 (69.0%) from the charity stripe.
Rice begins a three-game homestand next Saturday, January 30, when it hosts North Texas. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. CT.