Saturday night’s Rice game against Louisiana Tech offered up a little bit of everything. The action on the court was fast, featuring alley-oops and long three pointers. There were shot blocks and hard fouls. Fans were ejected. A Louisiana Tech player attempted to go into the stands after a fan. And Rice got the 88-81 win.
The win was No. 20 of the season for the Owls, the first time since the 2003-04 season that the Owls achieved 20 wins (and just the eighth time in school history). It was also perhaps the Owls’ biggest win this year, since Louisiana Tech (21-9) is Conference USA’s second-best team and is sitting on the NCAA Tournament bubble. And while Rice has been close this entire season to defeating better teams, this was the first time the Owls were able to pull it off.
“Winning 20 is great for everybody around here,” head coach Mike Rhoades said after the game. “It’s great for players, the people who support our program...It’s a great milestone.”
The Owls spread out the scoring, with four players finishing in double digits, led by guard Marcus Evans with 26 points. The team hit 25 of 29 free throws, found ways to beat a full court press, and pressured the Bulldogs into 20 turnovers. The Owls got 26 points from the bench and 18 points off of the turnovers. And it appeared that Rice’s ability to press and run the entire game, along with the loud crowd, wore down Louisiana Tech.
“Our crowd gives us a lot of energy throughout the game,” Evans said. “I know when we have our crowd in the game, it gives us energy to play harder."
The Owls are still a young squad playing in a middling conference that struggles to get the attentions of fans in a metropolis that’s not known for its college basketball fans. It’s not a program with any kind of winning tradition, and that last 20-win season resulted not in an NCAA Tournament bid, but one to the NIT. Yet it’s for these reasons that Mike Rhoades took this job three seasons ago.
“You’ve got to win your culture first,” Rhoades said. “I had a plan when I came here; the plan changes all the time. But we know what the end result of the plan is, to try and win a championship. Why can’t we do that at Rice?”
The Owls are currently in fifth place in Conference USA with a 10-6 conference record. That’s a huge turnaround for a team that barely managed to squeak out eight conference wins in the last two seasons and was virtually depleted of talent when Rhoades took on the job. He's turned the Owls into a pressing, fast-breaking team that leads C-USA in three-point field goal percentage and defensive rebounds
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The Owls are a team that hasn't been blown out this season and has been close in all of its losses. It is a team that has struggled with consistency in games — Rhoades has particularly been displeased by the team’s struggles when the Owls get a lead. And the Owls have had problems with winning close games against better competition — Rice had opportunities in the closing seconds to tie TSU and Middle Tennessee State while the Owls blew a lead and watched Texas Tech steal a last win at the free throw line. But Rice has grown and improved throughout the season.
“Twenty wins is definitely a big accomplishment,” Evans said. “It speaks a lot for how hard these guys have worked all season. But that’s not our goal for the end of the season. We still have a lot of goals that we want to reach. We’re going to enjoy this one, but we still hopefully have a long season in front of us.”
Rice has a chance at playing postseason basketball this year, though making the NCAA Tournament will take a miracle that comes from Rice winning the C-USA Tournament in two weeks. Rice is probably on the bubble for a NIT bid, but there has been mention of heading out to Las Vegas for the Vegas 16 Tournament.
"We want to keep playing until they don’t let us,” Rhoades said. “That’s our approach. I tell my guys, when there’s basketball being played, we better be playing, too. We have to do our job every day.”