John Royal Rice's Arsalan Kazemi battles for position under the Rice basket
No coach wants to draw up the play, but Braun drew up a doozy. He drew up a play so good, and the execution was so good, that Rice forward Arsalan Kazemi was able to take the pass at mid-court, turn and find Cory Pflieger with a great pass behind the Rice three-point line. Pflieger had time for a pump fake, which sent an ECU defender flying past him, then had time to square up to the basket and launch a beauty of a shot just before the buzzer sounded.
The play worked to perfection. Perfection except for one thing. Pflieger's shot rimmed out of the hoop. Pflieger sunk to his knees and pounded the court. And Rice lost 71-68 to drop to 12-16 (4-10 in conference) with just two games remaining in the regular season.
"We battled," Braun said afterwards. "Our team has not quit. And has not quit....our teams bounce back."
The same cannot be said, possibly, about Rice's in-town conference rival Houston Cougars. The Cougars lost 68-55 to UAB on Saturday afternoon in an embarrassing display of basketball in which, perhaps for the first time this season, the Cougar basketball team appeared to not give a damn about what happened on the court.
UAB led by 20 points for much of the first half, and were up by as many as 25 points with 14 minutes left in the game. That the score ended as close as it did was more a testament to UAB just deciding to jack up three-pointer after three-pointer for the remainder of the half, knowing that it didn't matter what they did because the UH offense would not be able to compensate.
"It seems like we've been taking two steps forward, then we take two steps backward," senior guard Zamal Nixon said. "Even in the -- we lost to UTEP, we lost to Memphis, but I think in those two games we did a good job of competing and fighting, and those games were real competitive and went down to the wire. And tonight...we didn't play with no energy, no defensive intensity."
John Royal Houston's Zamal Nixon searches for answers during another loss
"We didn't match their energy and their intensity," head coach James Dickey said. "There's not a lot of energy in the building. And that's our fault, and that's the way it's been the last couple of games. But we've got to create our own energy."
The Cougars have two games left in the regular season, two more chances to reignite a competitive fire that has disappeared. Then it's off to the conference tournament where it appears, if they keep playing as they've been playing, that they'll play one game and no more. And perhaps that would be for the best as Dickey can put this lost season behind him and start prepping for next season. A season where Joseph Young will be eligible to play and Dickey has had a full off-season to purge the team and begin anew.
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But the Owls haven't given up. The Owls have shown they're willing to battle every game, have shown that they think they can still win games. And as the Cougars proved last season, anything is possible once a team is in tournament play.
"Right now, we've got to stay together, especially with conference tournament coming up," Rice forward Lucas Kuipers said Saturday night. "That's what's important. For us to stay together is huge."
The Cougars appear not to care anymore. The Owls do. The results, in the standings, are the same And the results, once the conference tournament starts next week, will also probably be the same. But at least the Owls are going to give a damn about the result. The same can't be said about the Cougars.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The Owls host Tulsa at Tudor Fieldhouse on Wednesday night while the Cougars travel to New Orleans to take on Tulane. The regular season ends for both teams on Saturday when UH hosts Rice at 5:00 at Hofheinz Pavilion.