Nov. 14, 2009
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
There satisfying moments were supposed to come much later in the season, after Rice had taken its lumps and learned those gut-wrenching lessons against more experienced and established mid-major programs.
Freshmen and sophomores aren't supposed to weather these types of storms so early in the season, not when the tension is palpable and the opposition is comfortable applying asphyxiating pressure. But when South Alabama did what most every knowledgeable soul at Tudor Fieldhouse expected the Jaguars to do, the Owls did the unexpected: they surrendered their fate to Tamir Jackson and Connor Frizzelle.
Jackson and Frizzelle converted critical shots under wilting pressure before handing things over to senior guard Cliff Ghoram, whose late assist and clutch free throws buoyed the Owls in their 71-69 win over South Alabama on Saturday night in the Rice Basketball Challenge.
Ghoram burned the Jaguars with an accurate entry pass to Trey Stanton, who scored following the feed, drew a foul, and sank a free throw that snapped a 65-all tie with 42.9 seconds remaining. Ghoram added three free throws as the Owls (2-0) fended off the Sun Belt Conference power.
"Coach (Ben Braun) told me to make sure the help-side guy wasn't coming and dropping down to help on that pass," Ghoram said of his decision to pass over the top of the pressure. "Once I saw that he wasn't, I was comfortable in myself and I had the confidence in Trey to finish it.
"We are improving at a fast rate, especially with handling the pressure and press. Younger guys were able to keep level heads, even when they came back and tied it up. We were able to knock down some big shots."
The first dagger came from Jackson with 6:06 remaining and after the Owls watched South Alabama (1-1) whittle the lead from 13 points to 55-54. The Owls spread the floor and allowed Jackson to utilize his uncanny ability to penetrate, and Jackson delivered with a hard drive into the paint where he converted a scoop shot and absorbed a foul from DeAndre Hersey. Jackson converted the subsequent free throw to complete the three-point play and rebuild the Owls' lead to 58-54.
"I drove to Connor's side because I knew they weren't going to leave him (open) because Connor has played two big games and he's been hitting shots," said Jackson, the Owls' freshman point guard and game-high scorer with 18 points. "That gave me a chance to go to the basket."
After the Jaguars knotted the score at 59 on Martino Brock's steal and layup, Arsalan Kazemi hit the second of two free throws, Stanton scored on a follow tip off the glass, and Frizzelle drilled a huge 3-pointer in transition. That basket put the Owls ahead 65-59 with 3:03 left and capped another sizzling shooting performance by Frizzelle (17 points).
"Coach has told us in transition to run to the wing and spread the court, and I did that," said Frizzelle, who was 5-for-5 on 3-pointers. "(Jackson) passed the ball and I caught it in rhythm, and I had confidence in myself. The coaching staff has confidence, and they feel if it's a good shot for me then obviously it's a good shot for the team, and I took it."
Ghoram (14 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals) not only helped seal the game on offense, but his block out of the athletic Brock (15 points, 11 rebounds) led to his rebound of Tim Williams' missed 3. Bryan Sherrer would have tied the game at 68 with his 3, but Jaguars coach Ronnie Arrow was granted a timeout just before Sherrer released the ball with 20 seconds left. Ghoram followed with two free throws.
The final 16 minutes produced a harrowing ride for the Owls, who established a double-digit lead prior to the intermission and maintained it into the second half before the Jaguars dialed up their full-court press. Suddenly the Owls had problems getting the ball inbounds and across midcourt, and those troubles were exacerbated by the Jaguars' length and relentless effort on the offensive glass. South Alabama posted a 30-20 advantage on points in the paint and turned 17 offensive rebounds into 18 second-chance points, but the Owls negated those advantages by nailing 9-of-17 3s overall and 11-of-16 free throws in the second half.
Frizzelle (a game-high 40 minutes), Jackson (38) and Ghoram (32) combined to play 110 out of a possible 120 minutes, exhaustive work against the Jaguars' constant harassment. But when duty called the trio met the challenge, even if earlier than anyone could have anticipated.
"It was a valuable game for us," Braun said. "That's why you play these games early in the season. You really learn a lot playing these types of teams. It's good to get one of these games under our belt and come out on the winning side. It's big for our program."
The Owls will close the Rice Basketball Challenge against Houston Baptist (0-2) on Sunday afternoon at Tudor Fieldhouse at 3:30 p.m.