It was all right there for the taking. A win and the Southern Miss Golden Eagles would take sole possession of first place in Conference USA. A win and Southern Miss head coach Larry Eustachy would earn his 400th victory as a head coach.
But on a misty, drizzling, miserable Saturday night in the city of Houston, the Houston Cougars had something else in mind. And that something else consisted of the Cougars (12-13, 4-8) upsetting Southern Miss (22-5, 9-3) 73-71 before an even smaller than usual Hofheinz Pavilion crowd.
The Cougars as usual jumped off to the early lead. They led at the half 38-27 after Jonathan Simmons hit a three-pointer right before the buzzer. Southern Miss came out on fire for the second half, but no matter what they tried, the Cougars found ways to withstand the surges and maintain the lead.
It was a good win for the Cougars, but more than just the win, the game provided, perhaps, a glimpse of what this team can become over the next seasons. The offense worked to perfection in the first half, pushing the action at a good tempo with the point guards efficiently distributing the ball. The frontcourt refused to be dominated on the boards, and it was Southern Miss that appeared to lose composure throughout the game rather than the much younger Cougars.
"That first half, we were good defensively," head coach James Dickey said. "I thought we did a really nice job. I thought we were more active offensively. We advanced the ball on the pass. We advanced the ball on the dribble. We moved it quickly and were able to build up a lead."
The offense was sloppier in the second half, turning the ball over and taking poorer shots as Southern Miss went on multiple runs in trying to get back into the game. But point guards J.J. Thompson and Jimmie Jones kept the team and tempo under control.
The Cougars finally appear to have settled on Thompson and Jones as the point guards, freeing up Joseph Young to work the perimeter and concentrate on finding space to take a shot or drive the lane. And this makes for the most optimistic outlook for the team as Young and the rest of the team appear to be more confident on the court with Thompson and Jones running things.
"We just play better when JJ or Jimmie's out there," Dickey said. "The other guys, they both free them to move. I thought we moved, for the most part, much better offensively....I think we're better if one of those two guys is out there."
It's probably a bit late in the season for the Cougars to do much to improve their situation in the conference. But they appear to be setting up nicely for next season, and as Southern Miss can attest, they're in good shape to hurt the situations of other teams in the conference.
***************************** The Cougars also opened up the baseball season over the weekend, and it was a nice start as they swept the Delaware Blue Hens in a three-game series.
Things got off to a rough start as Friday's game was rained out. The Cougars and Blue Hens played the first game on Saturday afternoon in a steady mist/fog/drizzle that made the baseball hard to grip and just resulted in miserable conditions for all involved.
The mist seemed to match the Cougars' game as they were down 5-0 heading into the bottom of the eighth inning after having accomplished nothing the entire game. Then Taylor White started the inning with a double. Before it was over, there'd been an argument with the home plate umpire over whether a Cougar batter was hit, a triple, and two runs scoring on a squeeze bunt mixed in with three pitching changes and a few more hits as the Cougars scored seven times, winning the game 7-5.
Head coach Todd Whitting credited the argument with the home plate umpire (over whether Landon Appling was hit by a pitch) for jump-starting the team and leading them to the win.
"It did get the team going a little bit," he said. "We were sleepwalking through the first seven innings. We weren't making any adjustments at the plate. We had hit two balls on the ground, on a wet day on a wet field in seven innings. I think that got us jump-started a little bit. It kind of woke up our dugout."
The dugout remained awake for the second game, scoring seven first-inning runs on their way to the 16-1 win. And the sweep was concluded yesterday when the Cougars finished their destruction of the Blue Hens with the 9-2 win.
RICE OWLS NOTES: The Owls lost to Tulsa, in Tulsa on Saturday night, moving their record to 15-12, 6-6 in conference. The loss deprived head coach Ben Braun of his 600th career win, but the Owls have the chance to once again get him that win on Wednesday night when they host UCF.
The Rice baseball team also got the season off to a good start, sweeping a three-game series against Florida International played at Reckling Park. The sweep was the first time the Owls have started the season with a 3-0 record since 2006.