There's a minute left in overtime and the Rice Owls trail visiting UAB by seven points. The game should be over. In years past, the game would be over. In years past, this game would have been over five minutes into the second half, the point in which Rice's 12-point halftime lead had given way to a UAB lead. But this isn't the Rice Owls of years past.
Through a series of turnovers and three pointers and foul shots and free throws, the Owls tie the game and send it to a second overtime where Rice puts away UAB for the resounding 82-73 win. This game last Saturday's was Rice's third straight conference win -- it's longest such conference streak since 2006-2007. It was the team's second straight two overtime game (it won both). And it was Rice's ninth win of the season and its sixth conference win, planting the Owls solidly in the middle of Conference USA standings. (Rice lost to FIU in Miami by a score of 60-56)
It's a perfectly mediocre season (9-16 record, 6-7 in conference) for just about any other basketball program in the country. In fact, losing records often lead to head coaches being fired. Yet Mike Rhoades, the head coach of the Owls is definitely safe in his job. And he's safe for one simple reason, despite the losing record, the Owls are a much improved team from ones in years past. Ones that, in years past, would've have been blown out by double digits to a team like UAB.
There's a level of excitement around the Rice program. A level of anticipation. The eagerness to step on the court and play basketball is evident to anyone who comes out to Tudor Fieldhouse on game days. This Rice basketball team might not be very good, it might be undersized and undermanned, but Rhoades has convinced this team, these players, that it can win every night.
"I've said this to a lot of people," Rhoades said Saturday night. "Their coachablity from the get-go -- we haven't had a guy talk back to a coach since we've been here. That's unheard of. They're not afraid to be coached hard. They wanted to change this right away. And [seniors] Dan [Peera], Van [Green], and Seth [Gearhart] -- I said I'm going to be hardest on you guys...and we're going to change this, and maybe we can do it this year, but it starts with your lead." Lead the seniors have. Gearhart finished with 32 points last Saturday while hitting four three-point shots and making 12 of 13 free throw attempts. Gearhart also pulled down 10 rebounds while playing all but two minutes of the game.
"I told [Seth] the first day that I got here, you've got the green light, and I want you to be aggressive," Rhoades said. "But the responsibility that he has is that I expect him to be like that every single day and lead these guys with aggressiveness and confidence. Even when we were struggling early in the year...he had a great attitude."
For his part, Gearhart is thankful to have Rhoades' trust and confidence. And he and his teammates are thrilled that Rice has beaten preseason expectations and is no longer a laughingstock. But that's not enough.
"It's just really cool to see where we're at in league," Gearhart said after the UAB win. "We were picked to finish last, here we are sitting 6-6. We're not satisfied yet, either. We want to keep going. And that's the coolest part about this team. We want to keep working. We want to keep moving forward. And I think that's why we're seeing success right now."
Gearhart's gone after this season. He won't be around to see if the renaissance of Rice basketball actually happens. Many of the players on this Rice team might be gone by then. But the DNA is there. It's possible to see what Rhoades wants in the future, a team that presses and traps on defense for a 40 minutes, pushing the tempo on offense. Rhoades' team can currently only play this way in fits and spurts, but it won't always be this way.
There are just two more chances to see the Owls play at home this season, and that's next Thursday and Saturday. It's a good chance to get in on the ground floor, to watch a team beginning to figure it all out. That's nothing something that's been seen too often around the Rice basketball court in years past.
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