The Rice Owls didn't just lose a basketball game on Saturday night. They lost a home game by the score of 76-75. They lost to their crosstown rivals, the Houston Cougars (15-14, 7-9 in conference). They lost while having a one-point lead and the ball with 5.2 seconds left and the Cougars having no timeouts.
But the Owls (17-14, 8-8 in conference) lost more than just a basketball game at Tudor Fieldhouse. They lost composure at the most important time of the season. They lost composure as an atrociously officiated basketball game descended into utter chaos. An utter chaos that saw forward Arsalan Kazemi, Rice's best player, storming off the court and running after the officials when the game ended.
In retrospect, it seems that it should have been the young Cougar squad, with just one senior, that fell apart as the chaotic environment enveloped the building. Especially after they blew a 13-point lead, and especially after Jonathan Simmons missed the first of two free throws with 5.2 seconds left.
But with the Owls ahead by one point, and with both teams out of timeouts, Rice senior Connor Frizzelle did the unthinkable. He tried to call a timeout when he slipped trying to grab the inbounds pass. Or maybe he didn't call the timeout. The officials didn't seem to know for sure. The Owls were running around the court saying he didn't, the Cougars were running around saying he did.
"To be honest with you guys, I didn't see it," Rice head coach Ben Braun said. "I just know -- I know he tripped trying to get the inbounds pass. I think Ahmad [Ibrahim] was open and he cut in front...Unfortunately, Connor tripped. And he did all he could just to recover the ball. He was on the floor."
After huddling at mid-court and after reviewing courtside replay monitors, the officiating crew determined a timeout had been called, and they determined that only 2.7 seconds remained in the game. And since Rice had called a timeout they didn't have, a technical foul was assessed to the Owls and Houston senior Darian Thibodeaux was sent to the free-throw line to shoot two free throws. Two free throws that he easily made.
Rice had time for one more play. They attempted to inbounds a pass from under the UH bucket. Kazemi went up for the ball near mid-court. The entire Cougar squad appeared to descend on him. The ball flew in the air. Rice's Dylan Ellis attempted a last-gasp shot that fell just short at the buzzer. And just like that, Kazemi stormed off the court, following the referees who had just departed.
He shoved a female security guard who tried to stop him from leaving the court, and when seen in the corridor under the stands, Kazemi was caught in the bear hug of his teammate Ibrahim, who was holding him off the ground while Kazemi struggled to break free.
"Just frustrating," Owls head coach Ben Braun said. "The guys took the loss very hard, and that's part of the game. I don't have a problem with a player taking the game hard. That means that they care."
But Braun also said he didn't see what happened with Kazemi, and he might end up having a problem should the conference decide to suspend Kazemi for his actions. It was not known, however, if Kazemi actually got to any of the officials, and if he did not, then Braun might owe the salvation of the Owls' season to Ibrahim.
The officials missed calls the entire night as both front courts mugged their counterparts time and time again. The officials found plenty of phantom calls to make. And their indecision and ineptness in the game's final seconds completed the descent into chaos.
Chaotic night or not, the star of the game was Thibodeaux. He continued to break out of the slump that dominated most of his season, scoring 21 points (including five three-pointers) and shutting down Frizzelle, holding him scoreless.
"I was thinking about my teammates," Thibodeaux said about shooting the game-winning free throws. "Picking me up throughout the game and throughout my last few games. I haven't been having too many good games lately, but I was just thinking about all the hard times."
The game didn't have to descend into chaos at the end. It didn't need to end with the officials reviewing replays to see if a guy called (or didn't call) a timeout. It didn't need to end with a Rice forward chasing the officials off the court. It just needed some competent officiating.
But this is Conference USA, where chaos reigns supreme.
MISCELLANEOUS UH/RICE NOTES: The Cougars will be the ninth seed when the C-USA tournament starts on Wednesday. They'll face UTEP Wednesday evening, and if they win, they'll meet Memphis on Thursday. The Owls are the seventh seed. They'll face ECU Wednesday afternoon with a match-up against Southern Miss on Thursday going to the winner.
********************** The Owls and Cougars were two of the six college baseball teams to compete in this weekend's Houston College Classic. Both teams went 2-1, with the Owls losing on Friday night to Texas but defeating Texas Tech on Saturday and Tennessee on Sunday. The Cougars defeated Tennessee on Friday and Arkansas on Saturday before losing to Texas Tech on Sunday.
The key to the weekend for Houston and Rice was fantastic starting pitching. The better the pitching, the better both teams did. Houston's Jared Ray pitched seven innings on Friday afternoon, shutting down a supposedly potent Tennessee offense, surrendering five hits and one run while walking none and striking out ten batters. Cougar manager Todd Whitting says he would have stayed with Ray, but Ray's pitch count was elevated because of all of the strikeouts.
Houston's Jordan Lewis and Rice's Jordan Stephens also excelled on the mound, and Stephens, who pitched seven innings last night while striking out eight and surrendering no runs on two hits, was selected as the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
The teams participating in next season's Houston College Classic will be Houston, Rice, Texas A&M, Baylor, North Carolina and California.