Dec. 29, 2009
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
Rice coach Ben Braun was gushing, and justifiably so. The Owls had just produced a second-half defensive performance worthy of a time capsule, and for the defensive-minded Braun, the effort warmed the cockles of his heart seemingly more than any holiday gift possibly could.
After challenging the Owls in practice following their lackluster display at Lamar six days ago, Braun prodded the Owls at the intermission of their final non-conference home game on Tuesday night at Tudor Fieldhouse. The result was an extraordinary display of desire and determination, and a 75-62 come-from-behind win over McNeese State.
"We want to take this second half and bottle it and take it right with us to TCU," Braun said, referencing the Owls' final non-conference contest on Saturday night at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum in Fort Worth. "If we can play TCU the way we're playing here, that would really help us."
The Owls (6-6) limited the Cowboys (5-7) to 21 points on 17.9 percent shooting following the break. They were plus-7 in rebounds, allowed only three 3-pointers, and turned seven forced turnovers into seven points. There were some technical enhancements, namely forcing Cowboys guard Diego Kapelan to put the ball on the floor as opposed to catching and shooting off screens, but for the most part the Owls simply bowed their necks on defense and attacked the glass with vim and vigor.
Kapelan tallied 14 of his game-high 31 points in the second half, but he and Elbryan Neal were the only Cowboys who scored baskets after the intermission. McNeese State went more than five minutes without scoring a basket off a set play as Rice expanded its lead to 12 points.
"We just dug in in the second half," Owls sophomore guard Connor Frizzelle said. "Coach sort of got on us in the locker room and we all told each other we were going to pick it up.
"On defense it's a lot of recognition and communicating, and in the second half we did a lot better."
The second-half offense wasn't shabby, either. Frizzelle (17 points), freshman point guard Tamir Jackson (18 points, five assists) and freshman forward Arsalan Kazemi (16 points, 10 rebounds) set the offensive pace in the first half and were the only Owls to score in double figures, but Rice received an early second-half boost from senior guard Cliff Ghoram, who scored all nine of his points during one eight-plus minute burst. When Ghoram nailed a pull-up jumper with 10:49 left to play, the Owls had turned a six-point deficit into a 56-49 advantage.
Jackson, Frizzelle and Kazemi took over from there, with Jackson completing a three-point play less than a minute later, Kazemi completing his fourth three-point-play opportunity at the 8:36 mark, and Frizzelle dropping in consecutive jumpers to build the lead to 68-55 with 4:32 to play. Jackson added an improbable, acrobatic jumper at the shot-clock buzzer to seal the win with 2:10 left, but for good measure Lucas Kuipers chipped in a 3 and a layup following his offensive board.
"We played better as a team as opposed to the last couple of games," said Jackson, who is averaging 17.3 points on 50 percent shooting over the past three contests. "We shared the ball well ... and we came out with a vengeance (in the second half) and rebounded our butts off."
The second half is what Braun opted to celebrate. The Owls trailed by as many as 10 points before the intermission while allowing the Cowboys to make half of their 30 shot attempts. The ensuing reversal of fortune pleased Braun so much that he requested a repeat performance for TCU.
"Our best chance to be successful on Saturday is coming out of one of our best halves of basketball, maybe our best half all year," Braun said. "It's important that we build on that half of basketball, and take that effort and mindset into Saturday's game."