Nov. 29, 2009
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
The strategy was too simple and too sound to ignore.
No matter how many bodies Rice threw at Texas center Dexter Pittman, the results were the same. The Owls' effort and intensity occasionally forced Pittman into an errant pass, but the more frequent occurrence was Pittman setting up under the rim and powering for an easy basket whenever the Owls elected not to foul Pittman and send him to the line.
That scene played out in spurts throughout the Longhorns' 77-59 win over Rice on Sunday at Tudor Fieldhouse. The Owls' spirit was undoubtedly willing against the nation's third-ranked team, but the flesh could do only so much against UT's 6-10, 290-pound interior load.
"He's a big dude," Owls junior forward Suleiman Braimoh said of Pittman, who enjoyed a two-inch, 65-pound advantage in that particular matchup. "It was definitely a challenge. We played our all out there. We fronted him, we sent double teams at him, and what we really tried to do was not so much (defend Pittman) after the catch but tried to make it hard for him to get the catch in the first place. They did a good job of isolating him to get the one-on-one matchups they wanted to get, but overall we gave our best effort and tried to limit his catches down low."
In a contest that was sometimes frenetic but consistently spirited, Pittman was the difference. He scored a game-high 21 points on 7-for-8 shooting and grabbed a game-high nine rebounds, five on the offensive end. Pittman shot 12 of the Longhorns' 46 free throws as the Owls (4-2) were whistled for 33 fouls. Lucas Kuipers, Cliff Ghoram and Emerson Herndon were all disqualified by fouls while Trey Stanton, Tamir Jackson, Arsalan Kazemi and A.J. Holland finished with four fouls each.
Usually quick with their post double teams, the Owls hesitated on occasion because of the Longhorns' personnel and offensive sets.
"It's hard to come off (UT forward Damion James) to double Dexter," Stanton said. "It's also very hard to double when they're playing four-out(side), one-in(side); it's a longer run to get to the double team."
Pittman appeared to have landed the knockout blow when he absorbed a foul from Braimoh, scored and converted a three-point play with 19:24 remaining, scored in the post over Braimoh 27 seconds later, and then scored while drawing a foul from Herndon with 17:10 remaining. That basket upped the UT lead to 44-29, but the Owls wouldn't let the Longhorns run away to victory. Even after Stanton exited with his fourth foul the Owls maintained contact, cobbling together baskets here and there while slowly whittling the deficit to single digits on sheer guts.
J'Covan Brown drilled a 3-pointer for UT (5-0) with 11:27 left to extend the lead to 55-42, but the Owls answered with jumpers from Jackson and Herndon before Kazemi threw down a dunk and Braimoh scored on a layup. After Holland added a pull-up jumper and assisted on another Kazemi dunk, the Owls were suddenly within 61-56 with 6:17 to play.
Back came Pittman. He scored in the post with 5:50 left before sending Herndon to the bench by drawing a foul underneath. Pittman sank both free throws to rebuild the lead to double digits at 66-56, and while the Owls closed the game without a basket following the Kazemi dunk, UT salted away the win at the line, where they finished plus-32 in attempts.
"They threw the first blow. I think I'm the biggest player in college basketball, and if I throw the first blow it's going to be a cheap foul," Pittman said. "If I see the ref let it go then I'm going to turn on my physical game and stop trying to be so finesse and go around (defenders). I knew I had to bring that (physical approach) in the second half when I saw they were throwing it at me."
The Owls played UT to a statistical standstill before the raucous crowd of 4,669 aside from the glaring free-throw disparity. UT's interior length frustrated the Owls, who had five shots blocked and seemed hesitant to challenge the Longhorns inside. Rice guards tried in vain to reach the rim, but they were thwarted in the paint or turned back by contact.
"We were creating contact when the guards got to the hole," said Jackson, who finished with eight points and four assists but also had four turnovers. "It wasn't us not getting the ball down low. We got the ball down low and were creating contact, it just wasn't going our way. Sometimes that's how basketball is."
What the Owls accomplished was proving how far they've progressed since their sluggish performance at Arizona on Nov. 19. With Braimoh (12 points) and Stanton (10 points) scoring inside, the Owls showcased a willingness to run their offense through the post, which in turn allowed them to remain close to the Longhorns despite leading scorer Connor Frizzelle suffering through an atypical 0-for-10 performance.
There were hurried shots and ill-timed turnovers, but the resilience shown by the Owls provided something to build on in a game contested far deeper into the second half than anyone could have anticipated.
"Did our team battle? Yes," Owls coach Ben Braun said. "We took a step forward from the Arizona game. We competed hard, we played physically (and) we got the ball inside and scored on them."
Added Jackson: "I know all of us wish we could have won this game."
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