It's been a tough season for senior Houston shooting guard Darian Thibodeaux. The team's been a disappointment. And coming into Wednesday's home finale against the Tulane Green Wave, he'd been mired in a slump that saw him having gone six games without hitting a field goal while having missed his last 21 shots.
Things didn't get off to a good start for Thibodeaux on Wednesday, either, as he missed his first two shots. But seeing as how the Cougars were off to a great start against Tulane, getting as much as a 20-point lead in the half, Thibodeaux's offensive worries were a minor matter.
Then he hit a shot, and then another. His teammates and the fans in attendance roared their approval, lifting Thibodeaux's spirits as he had perhaps his best overall game of the season in Houston's (14-14, 6-9) 82-53 defeat of Tulane (15-14, 3-12). He finished with 12 points, seven assists and four rebounds. And as the team's designated defensive stopper, he came through once again, shutting down Tulane's Ricky Tarrant, the leading C-USA scorer during conference play.
"Basketball is basketball, all day, every day," Thibodeaux said. "It was just my teammates just picking me up through practice every day, and then when it got time for the game, they just kept telling me to shoot it. The next one don't fall, keep shooting. And once it did, I was comfortable."
The Cougars were comfortable for most of the game. They ran off to the early lead. They played stifling defense, dominated the boards. They did all of those things that head coach James Dickey has been preaching about all season, those things that, if they do them correctly every night, will give them a chance to win.
This was the last home game of the season for the Cougars. They close the regular season at Rice on Saturday night, then head off to Memphis next week for the conference tournament. And while the season's been a disappointment, there have been moments which pointed to a bright future. And Wednesday night was one such night.
Junior guard Jonathon Simmons once again led the team in scoring, finishing with 23 points, his eighth 20-plus point game this season. Freshman forward TaShawn Thomas finished with 13 points and was a force in the paint, offensively and defensively. And freshman red-shirt guard Joseph Young turned in his best overall game of the season, confidently running point for most of the game and scoring 12 points while dishing out five assists with no turnovers.
Stating that Young's finally understanding how to play the game, Dickey was effusive with his praise.
"I thought Joe really did a good job..." he said. "He's doing a marvelous job of ball-faking, and his midrange game and also penetrating to the basket -- he got a couple of layups. When you're a great three-point shooter, they're going to run at you, and you've got to have a midrange game, you've got to get the basket, and I thought that Joe did that...he didn't force anything."
The Cougars can actually finish the season with a winning record, but the Owls might not be so inclined to make that happen, especially with a chance to earn the number five seed and some easier matchups in the C-USA tourney next week still on the line.
The Owls (17-13, 8-7) defeated UTEP (14-15, 7-8) 68-61 in El Paso on Wednesday night to lock down their first winning season since the 2004-05 season when they finished 19-12. Junior forward Arsalan Kazemi finished the game with 12 points and 11 rebounds for his 43rd career double-double, a new C-USA record.
The Owls, along with playing for conference seeding on Saturday, will also be playing their Senior Night. And while the Coogs lose just one senior from this season's team, the Owls are losing just four, though only two, shooting guard Connor Frizzelle and forward Lucas Kuipers, receive major playing time. So while the play of Young, Simmons and Thomas points to a bright future for the Coogs, it's the Owls, who will return the core of their team next season, who seemingly have the brighter future.
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But they're not looking to next season. Their future is Saturday, and next week. The Coogs will play UTEP in the first round of the C-USA tournament next week. Should they survive that game, then they'll face Memphis. So it could be a short stay. As for Rice, they'll be either the fifth, sixth or seventh seed with a first round game against either ECU, Tulane or SMU, all of which will be decided on Saturday night.
HOUSTON COLLEGE CLASSIC NOTES: If college basketball's not your thing, perhaps you should give some thought to heading out to Minute Maid Park this weekend for the Houston College Classic, which features Rice, Houston, Texas, Arkansas, Texas Tech and Tennessee. The best game of the weekend will be tonight when national powers Rice and Texas battle. But each day offers up three games each, and the action gets underway this afternoon at 12:05 p.m. when Tech takes on Arkansas. The Cougars take on Tennessee at 3:35 p.m., and Rice and Texas are scheduled to go at 7:05 p.m. The action gets underway at 12:05 p.m. on Saturday and at 11:05 a.m.on Sunday. Tickets are $13 a day, but a weekend pass for all nine games is just $30.