By: Tim Andrzejewski (firstname.lastname@example.org)
HOUSTON -- Rice shot 64.0% from the field in the second half on its way to a 95-87 victory, Saturday night at Tudor Fieldhouse. The 95 points were a season-high.
Rice (7-14, 2-6 C-USA) placed five players in double-figures for the third straight game, led by Marcus Evans with 25 points. Evans was also a perfect 11-of-11 from the free throw line. Evans has now scored 20-plus points 11 times, tying the freshman record held by Brent Scott in 1989-90. He is also just the fourth freshman to pass the 400-point plateau.
Egor Koulechov added 19 points and six rebounds. Marquez Letcher-Ellis recorded 15 points and a team-high nine boards and Connor Cashaw and Bishop Mency added 11 points apiece. Max Guercy dished out seven assists.
"That was a true gut-check game for us," said Rice head coach Mike Rhoades. "I'm glad these guys had some success tonight. They found a way in the second half to get the game going. We scored a lot of transition baskets and I thought we had some timely stops. Not a lot of stops, but some timely stops. That was huge. I'm really proud of our guys (for) stepping up."
The teams each got baskets to start the game. Koulechov made a jumper but the Mean Green (7-14, 2-6) got two straight baskets to take the lead. Connor Cashaw gave Rice the lead back with a three-pointer and following a turnover by J-Michael Reese, Evans went the length of the court for an easy layup and a 9-6 Rice lead 3:15 into the game.
North Texas then went on an 11-2 run over the next 4:19 to take its largest lead of the half, 17-11. But, the Owls came back. A three from Mency and a jumper from Evans cut the deficit to one. Eric Katenda made one-of two free throws, but Letcher-Ellis converted a three-point play to give Rice the 19-18 lead.
Deckie Johnson hit a three to put North Texas back up by two before Koulechov tied it at 21 with a layup with 9:33 to play in the half. The game remained that way for the next 2:22 before Mency connected on two straight threes and Cashaw added one himself to force a North Texas timeout and give Rice its largest lead of the half, 30-21, with 5:54 to play in the half.
But, the Mean Green once again came right back, going on a 12-2 run to take a 33-32 lead with 2:30 to play before the break. After the teams traded a pair of free throws, Evans hit two from the charity stripe to regain the lead. The teams traded layups, but Guercy hit two free throws with five seconds left to send Rice into halftime with a 40-37 lead. It was Rice's first halftime lead since St. Thomas on Dec. 17.
The second half was a back-and-forth affair. Guercy found Andrew Drone for a layup to start things off, but Jeremy Combs connected on a three-point play. Guercy made a jumper and then found Cashaw for a three-pointer. J-Mychal Reese made one of two free throws before Letcher-Ellis hit a jumper. Johnson found Combs for a dunk but Koulechov hit a three to push the lead to 52-43, 2:22 into the second half.
Ja'Michael Brown hit a three but Letcher-Ellis answered with one of his own. The teams traded baskets before five straight North Texas points cut the Rice lead to 57-53 with 14:29 to play.
Baskets by Koulechov and Evans pushed the lead to eight. However, NT got two buckets to bring it back to four points. Evans made a three but a layup from Brown got the deficit back to five. But, layups from Cashaw and Drone got the lead back to nine points midway through the second half.
After Katenda made two free throws, Rice scored six of the next eight points to push the lead to 74-63. North Texas scored five straight to cut the deficit to 74-68 with 5:41 to play, but would get no closer, as the Owls connected on 14-of-15 free throws in the final four minutes to close it out.
Added Rhoades, "We needed to find a way to win. (North Texas) is talented. They're good and they took it to us when we played them a couple of weeks ago. They're very long and athletic and that hurts us. We battled. To outrebound them, even by one, for the game after the way we started on the glass, that's the gut-check part."
Rice connected on 30-of-54 (55.6%) from the field, including 11-of-23 (47.8%) from three. The Owls were also 24-of-26 (92.3%) from the charity stripe. North Texas shot 52.5% (32-of-61) from the floor, but was just 7-of-22 (31.8%) from three. Rice also won the rebounding battle, 29-to-28.
Rice continues its three-game homestand next Thursday, February 4, when it hosts Louisiana Tech. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. CT.