Rice Basketball: What's New, Pussycat?

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The Owls turned the LSU Tigers into pussycats
There are droughts, and there are droughts. And fittingly, on a day when the city of Houston was submerged under a continuous downpour of rain that may have helped to end a drought that's been dragging down the city, the Rice Owls found a way  to end their major drought, defeating the LSU Tigers 74-68 for their first victory over a power conference team in 22 games, dating back to November of 2003.

"It's amazing," Rice forward Arsalan Kazemi said. "We've been waiting to get a win like this. Like we were close at Texas, North Texas, a lot of games...but we all did it tonight. We did everything. We out-hustled them, out-rebounded them. We did everything we could to get this win. And I'm really happy."

The game really should not have been much of a contest. For while the LSU Tigers are no longer the LSU Tigers that made the Final Four in 2006, they're still the LSU Tigers that play basketball in the SEC and go up against powerhouse schools season after season. And the Rice Owls are still the Rice Owls, a small school in a mediocre conference that has not come close to sniffing the NCAA Tournament in several decades.

Yet it was the Owls who played like the major power last night while the Tigers played more like a pussycat. The game for the most part wasn't really as close as the final score indicated. But while Rice's struggles on the free throw line kept them from pulling away and allowed LSU to get within two points late in the game, it was LSU that couldn't hit the side of Reliant Stadium with a blimp while standing at a Reliant Stadium ticket window.

LSU took the early lead, hitting a three-pointer 16 seconds into the game. But Rice tied the game 40 seconds later and never looked back as they were able to hit their shots while the Tigers struggled to hit anything that wasn't a three-pointer. LSU's first two-point bucket didn't come until 4:38 was remaining in the first half, and if not for their hitting eight three-pointers in the first half, the game probably would have been over.

But LSU coach Trent Johnson contended that, despite LSU's all-around ability to do anything offensively -- they only shot 35.5 percent from the floor and made only one two-point bucket in the first half -- didn't mean that they could not have won if they had defended the Rice players better.

"If we defend better," he said, "as bad as we shot the ball, I think we're walking out of here happy"

And while that's a valid point, the more valid point is that Rice just played the better game. It was Rice that made all of the hustle plays. It was Rice that penetrated the lane time after time after time, drawing foul after foul.

While LSU had trouble making any shot other than a three-pointer, it can be said that came from Rice's defensive pressure. A defensive pressure that had the Owls anticipating, correctly, time and time again where LSU was going with the ball and who would be taking the shot.

"When we go to the game, we know exactly what the other team is doing," Kazemi said. "What's the percentage for the shots, for the three-point -- we know everything. We have a class before every game. We have a class for 15 minutes and we talk about every single thing that the other team does, and how we have to guard it. And it's like a class for us. This is my best class."

And it was Rice's knowledge of what the Tigers would do, of what they would try to do that sealed the victory for the Owls when guard Bryan Beasley stepped in front of a pass at half-court for the steal. Beasley then walked to the free-throw line and calmly nailed his two free throws to improve Rice's record to 7-6 on the season with one more game to go before reaching C-USA play.

"Our guys are committed," Owls head coach Ben Braun said. "They did follow our game plan. It's great when you have a team following your game plan because you've got a shot. Our game plan may not always be the best, but it's usually good enough that I think it'll give our team a chance to win."

This is a different Rice team than the one that lost to Arizona earlier this month, a team that Kazemi claimed was afraid of the opponent. The improvement's evident on the court as the team stuck to the game plan, dove for loose balls, played some stifling defense, and had significant contributions from every player that stepped onto the court. So while LSU might not be the power they were just a couple of years ago, they're not just a pussycat. And as they prepare to head into conference play, Rice can proceed proudly, with their heads held high.

SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Yesterday was guard Tamir Jackson's birthday, and Kazemi noted that the team looked at the win as Jackson's birthday present....Kazemi had another double-double, finishing the night with 19 points and 17 rebounds....For all that the Owls did right, they were only 32 of 47 from the free-throw line, which is why LSU was able to make a late push to get back in the game....Jackson finished with 16 points and Connor Frizzelle ended the night with 13 points, including nine from the free throw line as he came through from the charity stripe late in the game....Rice ends non-conference play on Sunday at 3 p.m. when they host TCU.

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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal