John Royal Connor Frizzelle drives the baseline in the first half
Overlooking the Owls was understandable. The Tigers had never lost to Rice, and the Owls as usual were slumping, having lost seven of their last ten games, and eight of their 11 conference games. But while the Tigers' 20-6 record looked pretty good, lost in the numbers was the relatively weak out-of-conference schedule and their struggles to defeat the likes of Arkansas State, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and ECU while losing to the likes of Marshall and SMU.
So the Rice Owls defeating the Tigers 67-52 on Saturday night shouldn't be too much of a surprise. That Memphis looked to be a tad overrated by many supporters also shouldn't have been much of a surprise. That Rice took the lead with three minutes gone in the first half and never surrendered it for the rest of the game should be somewhat surprising. But nothing should be more surprising than Rice dominating Memphis in every single aspect of the game.
"Probably at the beginning, from the jump ball," guard Tamir Jackson said when asked when he knew Rice could defeat Memphis. "We knew that we could take them. We knew we just had to stick together and play our game and we were going to come out with the victory."
The Owls out-shot Memphis. They out-rebounded Memphis. They committed fewer turnovers. Head coach Ben Braun matched Memphis coach Josh Pastner move for move. The Rice defenders, especially forward Suleiman Braimoh, were constantly a step ahead, a move ahead of the Memphis players.
Braimoh was a wonder on the night. Playing only 14 minutes, he finished with eight points on offense and four rebounds. But it was defense where his presence was really felt as he blocked three shots and stole the ball four times -- that figure really seems small as it seems he was getting his hands on the ball every time Memphis was on offense in the second half.
"I know what my strengths are," Braimoh said. "And they might not necessarily be on the offensive end, or totally on the defensive end, but I do know that the one thing I can bring every day, regardless of how the ball bounces, is my effort and energy, and I think today was one of those days where I was fortunate to bring that energy, translate it to the offense, translate it to the defense, and the team fed off of it, and I was happy for that."
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Memphis took the 3-0 lead on a three-pointer 1:38 into the first half. They were up 4-2 with 2:52 gone in the half. But then Lucas Kuipers hit a three to put Rice up 5-4, and from that point on, the Owls did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. They got their first-half lead up to 33-19 with 2:35 left, at which point Memphis went on a mini-run to get the score to 35-26 at the half. And the thinking was, the feeling was, that Memphis would come out on a run to start the second half and catch Rice before putting them away for another of their close victories.
John Royal Lucas Kuipers is blocked during the first half
"I thought our guys really battled," Braun said afterward. "It's one of the most complete games we've played in terms of our effort. To hold Memphis to 26 points a half, defensively, was huge. I thought we played good defense on the ball. We got in the gaps....Defensively this was about effort and toughness and making it difficult for to Memphis get good looks at the basket."
And depriving Memphis of those looks, swarming the ball, hitting shots led Rice to their first ever defeat of the Tigers. But more important than beating Memphis, the win puts Rice (12-14, 4-8) into a tie with Houston and ahead of UCF and Tulane for the all-important last spot in the C-USA Tournament while more than likely depriving Memphis (20-7, 8-4) of any chance of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Forward Arsalan Kazemi racked up another double-double as he finished the night with 11 points and 12 rebounds to go with three steals and four assists. Tamir Jackson was the game's leading scorer, finishing with 20 points....The Owls shot only 44 percent for the game, but they held Memphis to a 35.4-percent shooting night, including three of 17 from behind the three-point line....There are only four more games in the season for Rice, but two of the four are at Tudor Fieldhouse and the final game is against Houston at Hofheinz Pavilion.