John Royal Rice guard Connor Frizzelle awaits a pass in the first half
Now it's the Cougars who are floundering and the Owls who are soaring, especially after the Owls scored 23 points in overtime last night to defeat the Cougars 79-71 in a thriller which saw multiple lead changes and heroic efforts from players on both teams.
But no effort was more heroic than that of junior Rice guard Connor Frizzelle, who nailed a three-pointer from NBA three-point range with 12.6 seconds remaining on the clock to send the game into overtime. And once that game hit overtime, the Owls didn't look back, improving their record to 10-10 (2-4 in conference) while the record of the Coogs dropped to 11-8 (3-3 in conference).
"I went straight up, straight down. Had a good pull up," Frizzelle said of the shot. "Like I said, I have full confidence in my shot. When it left my hand, I definitely knew that it was going in."
The Cougars still had the chance to win in regulation, but senior guard Zamal Nixon, who had been perfect from the floor on the night for the Cougars, missed his mid-range jumper. And just like that, the game the Cougars appeared to have sewed up, was gone.
That the game was close, and that the Cougars actually appeared poised to win, speaks once again to Houston coach James Dickey's reliance on strong defense. The Cougars held the Owls to just 36.7 percent shooting in the first half and 41.7 percent in the second half.
Rice guard Tamir Jackson, who came up big in the overtime, was held to just four points during the first 40 minutes, and at times, especially in the first half, he was visibly frustrated when his teammates failed to get him the ball on the court. But as was the case in their loss to UTEP on Saturday, the Cougars couldn't keep the Rice big men off of the offensive boards as they gave up 34 points inside the paint and 12 points off of second chance buckets.
"We just didn't compete," said senior UH guard Adam Brown. "They came out and whipped our ass tonight. Rice brought it to us."
The Cougars were able to stay in the game thanks to their defensive play and the play of guards Nixon, Brown and Darian Thibodeaux. Nixon was six-of-seven on the night, including a perfect three-of-three from three-point range. Brown's outside shooting contributed 14 points, and Thibodeaux hit four three-pointers for 12 points. But the Owls shut down the inside game as, once again, the UH big men struggled whenever they attempted a shot.
The Owls took the lead early, rushing out to a 6-1 lead before the teams settled down into a physical, somewhat sloppy first half in which neither team was able to lead by more than five points. But it was the Cougars who had the lead at the end of the half as Brown hit a three right before the end of the half to put Houston up 31-28.
John Royal Houston forward Maurice McNeil powers over Rice foward Trey Stanton last night
Then along came Connor Frizzelle to change all of that.
"That final play, where they hit three going into overtime, I overplayed Frizzelle a little bit, he cut backdoor and pulled up for a three," Nixon said. "It was a good shot. We also had a chance to maybe win the game at the end of regulation, but we didn't. In overtime, we just really didn't compete at all."
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The Owls now find themselves heading into the heart of conference play on an upswing with two straight wins, including last night's comeback win that seems to be restoring the team's swagger and installing a little confidence. And as they prepare to host SMU on Saturday, the team seems to recognize that, like in last night's overtime, they're getting a second chance on the season.
"Once we were able to get in that overtime, we scored, we defended, we did about everything right in that overtime period," Rice head coach Ben Braun said about the game. "It was like getting a little bit of a second chance. Sometimes you need those opportunities, but we had to fight to earn that chance."
Now it's the Cougars who are fighting to prevent the slipping away of a promising season, who are fighting for that second chance. Nixon and Brown were adamant after the game that it's all a matter of execution, and that if they execute the offense and don't make mistakes then things will be fine. But as the Rice Owls will testify to, getting that second chance isn't always easy.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Rice hosts SMU (12-8, 3-3) at Tudor Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. The Cougars, meanwhile, travel east to play ECU (11-9, 2-2) on Saturday night....The Cougars had won the last eight games against Rice....Rice forward Arsalan Kazemi, who has been battling an illness, recorded his 13th double-double of the season when he finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds....Darian Thibodeaux has hit at least three three-pointers in seven of his last ten games.