March 1, 2012
EL PASO - Arsalan Kazemi scored 12 points and grabbed his 11th rebound for his Conference USA career record-setting 43rd double-double and the Owls guaranteed the program's first winning season since 2005 in a 68-61 win over UTEP Wednesday in the Don Haskins Center.
With the win, Rice is now 17-13 and 8-7 in Conference USA play. The Owls can finish no worse than seventh in the C-USA final standings and could be either the fifth, sixth or seventh seed at next week's Conference USA Tournament in Memphis.
This Saturday the Owls go for their fourth straight win over cross town rival Houston as the team celebrates Senior Night in Tudor Fieldhouse. Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised regionally by CSS as well as broadcast by 1560 The Game (KGOW).
Trailing by two points at intermission, Rice began the second half by making just one of their first nine shots, a Connor Frizzelle three-pointer which pulled the Owls to within a point, 31-30. Despite the early shooting struggles, the Owls locked down on defense, holding the Miners to just one field goal in the first six-plus minutes of the period.
"Our guys came out the second half and held UTEP to 30 percent from the floor, that's playing defense," said Rice head coach Ben Braun. "For us to get those stops on defense, especially on the road, that was the key for the victory."
Jarelle Reischel's two free throws with 14:23 to play gave Rice its first lead, 32-31.
There were five lead changes in the second half with Rice gaining the lead for good on the first of two straight possessions in which the Owls went inside to Omar Oraby for baskets. He was fouled on both field goals and converted each into a three-point play.
Late in the game, the Owls' lead would balloon to double figures.
With UTEP trailing by five, Miner guard Jacques Streeter stole the ball from Dylan Ennis and raced down the sideline. Frizzelle got back on defense and got a hand on the ball as the Miner drove inside. Streeter was called for a traveling violation and UTEP coach Tim Floyd emphatically argued the call. He was whistled for a technical foul and picked up a second technical when he threw his coat to the floor.
Frizzelle would go to the line and make four straight free throws. On the Owls' ensuing possession, Frizzelle's missed jumper was rebounded by Oraby for a puback that gave Rice a 56-45 lead with 4:10 to play.
UTEP would rally back, cutting the lead to as few as two points on a John Bohannon jumper but the Miners were forced to foul in the final minute.
Ennis made a pair at the line and at the other end of the floor Ahmad Ibrahim rebounded a Miner miss, launching a pass to Lucas Kuipers for a fastbreak layup to give Rice a 62-56 lead with 35 seconds to play. The Owls made eight of 10 free throws in the final minute to ice the win.
Led by Kazemi's third straight double-figure scoring game, Rice had four players score in double figures.
Frizzelle scored 12 points, had six rebounds and three assists. Freshmen Reischel and Ibrahim each finished with 10. Oraby was perfect shooting, 3-for-3 from the field and 2-for-2 at the line, finishing with eight points and six boards.
Last Saturday, Kazemi was just a rebound shy of registering a double-double. The junior has come on strong in recent games and over the last three contests is averaging 13 points an outing.
"Arsalan had a great defensive presence," Braun said. "He was really big on the defensive glass for us. He was helping out on ball screens. And when we needed some key baskets or key foul line attempts, he got us to the line."
"The coaches told us before the game how important this one was and how it would affect a lot of things heading to the postseason," Kazemi said. "This game was kind of like the first game of the conference tournament. Everyone came and gave a good effort to help us win."
Rice never led in the first half, trailing by as many as six, 17-11 with 7:47 to play.
The Owls' best ball movement of the period led to a Tamir Jackson three-pointer at the 2:40 mark which cut the Miners' lead to two, 26-24. Jackson's triple came off a quick pass from Kazemi inside.
Julian Washburn would answer with a jumper before Reischel fired a pass inside to Kazemi who scored and went on to convert a three-point play with 40 seconds to play.
The Owls had only committed five personal fouls heading into UTEP's final possession. Ennis would foul Streeter when the Miner guard made his move toward the basket with 11 seconds to play. Washburn would then get the ball inside and Reischel would foul late, sending the freshman to the line. Washburn would make the first but miss his second attempt with 2.4 seconds to play and the UTEP lead was 29-27 at the break.
Wednesday's victory was the second straight win in which the Owls have come back from a halftime deficit to win. Prior to the Owls' come-from-behind victory last week against UCF, the Owls had lost their previous 11 games when trailing at intermission.
"I think our team has confidence to in our ability to get stops and make key plays," Braun said of overcoming deficits. "We executed to get the ball in Arsalan's hands late and get to the foul line. We caught them on some back screens. It's important our team to finish some plays both on the offensive end and the defensive end."
Saturday night when the Owls meet Houston for the 75th time in the series Rice will recognize four seniors who have all contributed in the Owls push to lockup the first winning season since 2005.
"We want more than that so we are not satisfied with just getting a winning season," senior Lucas Kuipers said of securing a winning record. "We are hoping to do something in the postseason and in our conference tournament. We are happy that we have done that. It marks a turnaround in our program. I know they had a pretty bad year the season before we got here and this is something that we will take away for the rest of our lives."
The Owls are right at .500 in road games (6-6) and will be looking for their 12th home-court win including fifth straight in Tudor Fieldhouse on Saturday.
"I'd like to see a good crowd and send the seniors out in the right way," Frizzelle said of the upcoming game against the Cougars. "We have a lot of family coming in for this game. We believe there will be a lot of Houston fans so hopefully it will be a packed house."
In recognition of the 75th playing of the Houston/Rice series, chairback seats for the game have been reduced to 75 percent off and are available at the Rice ticket office.
The Conference USA Tournament begins March 7th at the FedEx Forum in Houston.
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