EL PASO, Texas - Rice University men's basketball overcame a slow start to take a lead early in the second half, but in its home finale, UTEP rallied back to claim a narrow 68-65 win over the Owls in front of 8,574 fans at the Don Haskins Center. Both teams now turn their attention to next week's Conference USA Championship.
Head coach Mike Rhoades said, "We were in a hole but had a great steal that could have put us back ahead, but we gave the ball right back. We played hard today and we really got after it. I'm so proud of our guys - I told them there's no other group of dudes in the country that I would rather be coaching right now. We've just got to be smarter down the stretch. We could've won this game. I won't say we should have, because UTEP is so well-coached, but we had that opportunity."
Marcus Jackson led the squad with 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting and 4-of-7 three-pointers, including the game's final points in the last second of action. The sophomore added four rebounds and two assists. Bishop Mency scored all 12 of his points on second-half three-pointers. The freshman added three rebounds and an assist.
Max Guercy reached double figures with 12 points of his own. The junior guard added six rebounds, six assists and a pair of steals. Seth Gearhart was the fourth Owl (11-19, 8-10) to reach double figures as the senior notched 10 points with five boards and an assist.
The Owls got a slow start in the first half, missing their first six shots as UTEP built up an early 11-point lead. The Owls then began to chip away as Jackson headed up to score 13 points in the period, including five of the visitors' final seven before the break. The Owls shot 39.1 percent from the field in the frame and 3-of-8 from beyond the arc to pull within 29-27 at the intermission.
Rice completed its comeback early in the second half as Mency sank a three-pointer to give the visitors a 30-29 lead. The Owls extended the advantage to as many as four points in the early going as Mency sank two more three-pointers during the run. The Owls pushed it to as many as five points with just over six minutes remaining before UTEP made a run to pull within 56-55 with four minutes remaining. The Miners (21-9, 13-5) then took the lead for good with 2:49 on the clock. Once the home team opened its advantage to 62-58 less than a minute later, it would not let the Owls any closer than three points in the final minutes.
For the game, Rice shot 42.0 percent from the field and 9-of-21 downtown. The Owls knocked down 14-of-19 free throws on the afternoon and tied the Miners with 32 rebounds apiece. UTEP shot 46.8 from the field with 5-of-17 three-pointers and 19-of-31 free throws.
Vince Hunter led UTEP with 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting and 12 rebounds. The Minters scored 13 second-chance points off of 11 rebounds and tallied 26 points in the paint. The Miners converted 15 Rice turnovers into 20 points, with eight fast-break points.
Nate Pollard scored a season-high four points on 2-of-2 shooting in seven minutes of action. Jeremy Jones also set a season scoring high with eight points, including four points at the foul line. He added six rebounds, two steals and an assist. The Owls head to the Conference USA Championship in Birmingham, Ala. next week. Rice opens play on Wednesday in the tournament's first round. The complete bracket will be released later this evening.
NOTES: Jackson moved up to fifth place in the Rice record book with 79 three-pointers on the season, passing Tommy McGhee (76 - 1995-96) and Morris Almond (77 - 2006-07) ... Gearhart took sole possession of 10th on the same list with 66 on the year, passing Shawn Tyndell (65 - 2000-01).