The Houston Cougars didn't see the old year out in the fashion they wanted, and they sure haven't seen the new year in in the fashion they desired. Coming into last night's battle with the Rice Owls at Tudor Fieldhouse, the Cougars had lost three straight, including a stunning New Year's Day defeat at the hands of UT-San Antonio. But maybe the 6-8 Rice Owls were just what the 8-6 Houston Cougars needed.
It sure looked liked that in the opening minutes as the Cougars roared out to a quick 8-0 lead. Rice quickly got back into the game, and the Cougars stumbled into halftime with a 38-34 lead and what was promising to be another tight contest against a team they should be handling easily. But the Cougars who came out in the second half were a different squad than played in the first, and the team easily got the 83-66 win in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicated.
"We just wanted to come out with some intensity [in the second half] because a couple of games we've been lacking in the second half," point guard Desmond Wade said. "We just wanted to keep the intensity up and build the lead and try to play hard and finish."
And finish this game the Cougars did, though they finished this game in a fashion that hasn't seen been around the team this year. A fashion that involved the strong inside presence of forwards Maurice McNeil and Kendrick Washington.
McNeil was the game's leading scorer, finishing the night with a career-high 23 points and 13 rebounds in 38 minutes of play. Washington, who has been recovering from surgery on both shins, got the most play he's had this season, finishing with seven points and five rebounds in 22 minutes of action.
"I've been waiting for the day when I could use them together, and tonight was the night," Penders said afterward.
McNeil apologized to Wade who tied his season high with 10 assists, thanks to the play of McNeil.
"He could average ten assists if he really wants to," McNeil said of Wade. "I just tell him every game he dumps it and I always miss it. So I promised I wasn't going to miss no more and I was going to catch everything and finish."
Wade said that getting the ball into McNeil and Washington was the intention for the game as it's well known what he and the other guards (primarily Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis) can do, but now that conference play was starting, it was time to start getting the big guys involved a bit.
"We knew we've got guards," Wade said. "And we just wanted to have an inside presence, especially with [McNeil], Kendrick [Washington], Khamell [Broughton], Sean [Coleman], and Kirk [Van Slyke]. We just want to have an inside presence because we know the guards are going to do what they do, so we just want to develop some inside presence."
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The high point of the night had to be play of Washington, who -- while not putting up the flashy numbers of McNeil -- made his presence known on the court.
"Our medical people have done a tremendous job with him, and our training staff...and the rehab process," Penders said. "He's a big boy, and he had identical fractures in both shins. And I think he's starting to feel confident again. He's a tremendous talent. Smart player. Great hands and gives us an inside presence, physically. I've just been careful not to bring him in and out of games, and I've been careful not to give him too much time up until now."
But with two straight strong games from Washington (he put in 20 minutes in the double-OT loss to Iowa State on Sunday), it looks like Penders might be ready to start letting him get some more action, especially now that the Cougars are in the conference part of their schedule.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:
The Cougars return to action on Saturday night when they host Tulsa in a nationally televised game that should tip off at 6 p.m.....The Cougars originally went into halftime with a 39-34 lead, but after both teams had left the court, the officials came over to the press table and reviewed a Kelvin Lewis shot from about the 2:49 mark which had originally been ruled as a three-pointer. The replays showed that his foot was on the line, and the refs changed it to a two-pointer, making the score 38-34....Tom Penders jokingly thanked C-USA for scheduling this game while the Rice students were on break because he claims that they have more nicknames to shout out at him than just about any other student fan-base in the country.