That the Houston Cougars (6-4) played a basketball game on Saturday night was not too surprising. That none of the so-called Cougar fans could be bothered to come by Hofheinz Pavilion for the game was not too surprising either.
In fact, there was nothing too surprising about the Cougars 68-63 loss to the UTSA Roadrunners (6-2). The team played a crappy first half then kicked things into gear early in the second half. They had trouble shooting the ball, and the offense was never able to find a rhythm.
Yet with just over 18 seconds left on the clock, the Cougars were at the free throw line with a chance to tie the game.
The only thing different about this game was that they didn't actually win the game. This team has made it a habit of playing bad first halves then coming back to steal the win late in the game. But Kendrick Washington missed both free throws and UTSA was able to hold off the Coogs for the win.
Head coach James Dickey took responsibility for the loss, blaming himself and his staff for the continued inability of the team to show up for the first half of the game.
"My job is to get the guys ready to play, and we were not ready to play," he said. "And that's a huge disappointment because the things that we talk about is playing energy, playing with passion, playing with enthusiasm, and I certainly thought that we did not do that until we got down about 10 points in the second half."
If not for the play of senior forward Maurice McNeil, the Roadrunners would have been running away with the game at the half, but McNeil put up 14 of the team's 24 first half points to keep the score to 30-24. Even McNeil's play was not stellar as he missed countless shots from pinpoint range, but not stellar as his play might have been, it was still good enough to keep the Cougars close.
"We always start inside-out, so I just wanted to play hard and be aggressive and go to the basket and play strong," McNeil said. "My team was just finding me, but I still missed a lot of easy shots."
Powered by McNeil, who finished the game with 26 points, and the second halfemergence of guards Adam Brown and Zamal Nixon, the Coogs slowly crawled back into the game. But at no point during their comeback attempt did the team appear to be playing at their best. They missed countless shots from close-up, made sloppy passes, and just appeared to be a step slower than the Roadrunners all night. McNeil, for one, claims his problems arose from trying to be too cute, trying to draw the foul, instead of just trying to make his shot.
"I was looking for the foul on most of the shots I missed instead of going up strong like I've been doing," he said. "I've got to get out of the habit of stopping and looking for the foul and just finish."
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McNeil's problems aside, if the rest of the team would have played with his intensity for the entire game instead of just in the second half, the Cougars would have probably pulled out the win. And that could be part of the team's problem as the players realize they're good enough to turn it on and win a game in the second half, thus they don't see the necessity of playing hard in the first half.
"If we look at it, that's how it's been going," Nixon said. "We've always been a comeback team. But if we could put together a solid game for 40 minutes, then if you look at the teams we've played in the past, then we always have the advantage. So if we can just work on playing 40 minutes instead of trying to be lackadaisical in the first half and then thinking we always come back so there's nothing to worry about, we'll better in the future."
The Cougars have the rest of this week to contemplate this loss - well, when they're not taking finals, that is. And hopefully they'll realize the importance of playing with energy, passion, and intensity for 40 minutes instead of just for 20 minutes. If not, the Cougars are going to continue having huge problems with winning basketball games.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Perhaps part of the team's problem lies with the lack of fans of in the building. It's kind of hard to get passionate about a game when the place is nearly empty. What happened to all of those people who claimed the reason they didn't attend games was Tom Penders? Penders is gone, but the fans still steadfastly refuse to show up....The Cougars play Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Saturday. Their next home game is December 21 when they host Sam Houston State....Maurice McNeil's 26 points were a career high, eclipsing the 23 he scored against Rice on January 23 last season. He also hauled in 12 rebounds for his fifth double-double this season.