The Houston Cougars dashed off to a 13-0 lead against the Rice Owls on Wednesday night. The offense worked to perfection. There was some decent defense being played. But as the teams went into a timeout only 7:45 into the game, one couldn't help but sense doom hanging over the Hofheinz Pavilion court.
The Owls stormed back to lead 35-34 at the half. And though the score see-sawed back and forth for most of the second half, a win by the Owls seemed inevitable. An inevitability made final by Arsalan Kazemi's reverse dunk at the buzzer to make the final score 79-71 Rice over Houston.
The two teams that met Wednesday night were the proverbial two ships passing in the night. The Cougars (11-12, 3-7) are a talented team. Talented, but young. They lack height and muscle and on-court leadership. The Owls (14-11, 5-5) have a lot of young talent, but they're anchored by upperclassmen who refused to get ruffled or upset when the Cougars stormed out to that early lead, primarily because they knew they were getting good shots and that, as long as they kept taking good shots and playing good defense, the points would begin to pile up.
"I think a real big key of the game, for me, was that we were down early...and I didn't know we'd missed our first 14 shots," Owls coach Ben Braun said. "That's not going to happen to one of our teams very often. But our players understood that to get back in this game, we were not going to get back in this game offensively, but we were going to get back into this game defensively. And very few teams would understand that, being down, most teams are going to try to climb back in, get on the board."
The Owls defense did kick it into high gear for the rest of the first half, outscoring the Coogs 35-21. That defense led to some easy transition shots for the Owls which in turn allowed them to catch up with the Cougars. By the time the half had ended, the Owls were outshooting the Coogs, hitting 41.4 percent of their shots compared to the Cougars' 40 percent. And after missing their first 14 shots, the Owls made 30 of their final 46 shots.
While the Cougars let the Owls catch up, they prevented them, for the most part, from going on a spurt and pulling away with the game. Until the final minutes of the game, that is, when they weren't able to keep their composure as the Owls switched from the man-to-man to the zone defense.
It was a defensive switch the Cougars knew would be coming. They'd practiced going to the zone. Yet when the Owls switched to the defense, and despite Houston head coach James Dickey calling plays during a timeout to combat the defensive switch, the Cougars froze and fell apart.
"The zone kind of bothered us a little bit," guard Jonathan Simmons said. "They only played a zone the last four-and-a-half minutes of the game. So I think that kind of bothered us a bit."
"We were expecting to see it," shooting guard Joseph Young said. "All we had to really do was attack the zone, and penetrate and pitch like we practice, but they played it well."
The game was also the perfect illustration of how the season has gone for these teams. The Coogs have looked spectacular at times during about every game, it seems; yet they seem to fall apart time and time again as inexperience grips the team. As the Owls were climbing back into the game, the young Coogs began to lose their swagger and their confidence, waiting for the next boot to fall.
The Owls, meanwhile, have had trouble playing complete games. They're a team that will go on great spurts of basketball, only to fall to pieces. The question with the Owls is always centered on whether they'll be able to withstand the spurts of other teams while timing their runs to peak the right time.
This basketball season is quickly coming to a close, and there's not really much time left for the Coogs to right the ship. They've lost three straight games, and at this point, the focus is probably on getting ready for the impending move to the Big East after next season. Meanwhile they head out to Tulsa on Saturday night before hosting Southern Miss next Saturday.
For the Owls, it's all about this season. They're in the middle of the conference standings, and they have a chance of moving up to one of the top seeds for the conference tournament. They host moribund SMU on Saturday night, then travel to Tulsa next weekend. The NCAA Tournament is probably out of the question, but as the Cougars proved several years ago, all it takes is getting hot at just the right time.