The Rice Owls are in a tough stretch of games. They've been on the road, and they're running up against the end of the semester, which means finals and tests and papers and no sleep. So maybe their 84-57 loss to the Arizona Wildcats can be explained away by going with that excuse.
Maybe, but don't tell that to head coach Ben Braun or forward Arsalan Kazemi, both of whom felt that the Owls had no excuses in losing to a 6-1 Arizona squad that has also been in the midst of a large number of games on the road and were coming off a very tough defeat to number six ranked Kansas on Saturday. The 3-4 Owls were themselves coming off a tough road defeat, losing 62-59 to 19th ranked Texas in Austin last Saturday. Yet according to Kazemi, the Owls were more afraid of unranked Arizona than they were of Texas.
The Owls actually hung close to Arizona for about five minutes, and were tied at 8-8 for a short moment. Then the Wildcats went on a run and Rice never recovered. That run doomed the Owls, and Braun didn't think a run should have done that to his team, or to any team.
"I think we had only three players that weren't scared to play against Arizona," Kazemi said. "And that was the main reason that we lost this game by  points...We cannot go out there scared because of the name of the other team. It was in our home court. We had the home court advantage. We had our fans. I don't know why we have to be scared to play against a team. They're not ranked. Texas is ranked. We played Texas; we played pretty good. But I don't know, today there was something wrong."
"They went on a run, and I thought, Arizona's going to go on runs, that's who they are," Braun said. "And that's what they do. I was obviously could sense our team was a little frustrated and when we got down, we got down with some things that have been areas that we've really tried to work hard on this year. We gave up second chance points. We got beat on some baseline penetration, and we let down defensively....That early run seemed to spark them and seemed to deflate us a little bit..."
But as Arizona went on the run, the Owls fell apart. They finished the game shooting only 37.5 percent from the floor and 18.2 percent from three point range while Arizona was shooting 56.6 percent overall and 42.3 percent from three point land. And when the percentages are that lopsided, then the score is going to be lopsided.
Neither Kazemi nor Braun wanted to hear any excuses about end of semester exams. The end of semester exams are part of the experience when playing in college, and tough exams and tough schoolwork are definitely a part of the Rice college basketball experience.
"I didn't sleep last night because I had homework to do..." Kazemi said. "That cannot affect the game. When you come to the game, everything is going to be different because you're not playing only for yourself, you've got to put whatever you have for your team, put yourself best foot forward."
And while Rice didn't play good basketball, of which there is no doubt, Arizona was playing at the top of their game, almost as if that loss to Kansas never happened.
"We just wanted to come in and play hard," Arizona point guard Lamont Jones said. "On any given night you can lose and on any given night you can win. We took a tough loss the other night, but at the same time you've got to learn from it and put it in the past and just move forward. And that's what we tried to do here today. We put that Kansas game to rest and came out and we played hard to get that nasty taste out of our mouth."
That's what they wanted to do, and that's what they did, even with consensus Pac-10 player of the year Derrick Williams fouling out in the second half (but not before he got the double-double of 18 points and 10 rebounds). But the Wildcats were having fun and dominating the Owls like no other basketball team has dominated them this year.
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But while it was fun to Jones and his teammates, it was a serious matter to Kazemi (who finished the game as Rice's leading scorer with 17 points and six rebounds), and he's not happy. He sees the losing as contagious, and it's an attitude that the school and team have to find someway to change.
"Some of them, I think they are happy that we are close," Kazemi said. "But that's not good. I'm not happy because losing is losing. No matter if it's three points or 30 points."
The Owls weren't close last night. They were never close to being close, and for some reason, as Kazemi said, they took a big step backwards from when they played the Longhorns.
They've got the rest of this week to get things figured out before they take on Lamar on Saturday. The first step is to probably stop being satisfied with being close. Then maybe they just need to take the Wildcat approach and go out and have some fun.