Last night was senior night at the University of Houston. The last night that Sean Coleman, Kelvin Lewis, and Aubrey Coleman would play on their home court. The Rice Owls, coming into the game with a 7-21 record, were the competition.
The game should have been a runaway. But as has been the case all so often with the Cougars this season, should have been did not turn out to be what actually happened.
The Cougars came away with the 78-70 win to improve their record to 15-14 with one game left in the regular season. Aubrey Coleman finished as the game's high scorer, with Kelvin Lewis finishing in his customary number-two slot. But with 7:33 remaining in the game, the Owls were the team winning the game, 63-62, having come back from a 14-point deficit early in the second half.
Then Lewis and Coleman went to work and put the game out of reach, allowing the Hofheinz Pavilion crowd of 3,546 to breath easy.
"It feels good," Lewis said of the win. "It feels good to beat Rice. That's our rival. But we just took it as another game getting ready for the conference tournament. We got it done. We were a little sluggish, but we got it done."
The Cougars did play sluggish throughout the night, committing an uncharacteristic nine turnovers in the first half, but were bailed out by the inside presence of freshman Kendrick Washington and the clutch shooting of senior Sean Coleman who finished his senior night with a career high of 12 points.
"That was a positive, obviously," head coach Tom Penders told the media after the game. "I've had a lot of confidence in Sean since we recruited him, and he's really starting to believe himself. He's an offensive weapon...he's a very smart player, and I think that can take the pressure off Kelvin and Aubrey. And I thought Kendrick Washington's play in the first half, offensive play, was key for us to build an eight-point [first-half] lead. He was huge out there tonight."
The second half started out as a more routine style of Cougars game with the team gunning to a quick 14-point lead behind the three-point shooting of Lewis. But Rice battled back, taking advantage of the Cougars' sloppiness and inability to stop Rice second-chance shots.
The players admitted afterwards that they were lucky to get the win, but that playing Rice, they were expecting a tough battle. The margin of the victory wasn't important. The win was the important thing.
Penders admitted that the Rice game plan took him by surprise as he had prepared the team for a zone defense that didn't force the action on the offensive end. Instead, Rice played a man-to-man most of the game and went to a smaller lineup that took away the Cougars' ability to dribble-drive the lane and pass back out to the perimeter.
The Cougars were able to keep their composure and didn't collapse, despite the Rice comeback. And the Coogs were able to staunch the flow with their own aggressive defense and Lewis and Coleman hitting shots as necessary.
The players are hoping that this win, as well as their recent play, will propel them forward through the tournament.
"We just want to put a couple of wins together to close out the season and head into the conference tournament," Sean Coleman said.
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"I like our chances," Lewis said of the upcoming C-USA tournament. "We just have to make sure that everybody's on the same page. By doing that, hard practices, and team meetings, we should be alright."
The Cougars finish out the regular season on Saturday when they play Tulane in New Orleans on CBS College Sports at 7 p.m. The C-USA tournament will begin next Wednesday, in Tulsa, and the primary question for the Cougars heading into the tournament is their seeding. They will be either the six, seven, or eight seed, and they are currently battling SMU and Southern Mississippi for those seeding spots.
UTEP will be the number-one seed with UAB and Memphis the two and three seeds. Marshall and Tulsa are currently battling for the fourth seed and the final first round bye.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Freshman forward Maurice McNeil was not available for the game due to a family emergency....Aubrey Coleman is this week's C-USA Player of the Week. That's the fifth time this season, the seventh time in his career, that he's won that honor. Speaking of Coleman, coming into last night's game, he was the NCAA's leading scorer, averaging 25.9 points a game.