Rice Owls Hit The Jackpot, And A Three-Pointer Or Two

The Rice Owls played the first game of the Las Vegas Hoops Classic last night, and the Owls improved their record to 5-4 as they defeated the (6-5) UALR Trojans 65-55. But though the game was part of a Las Vegas basketball tournament, the game was played at Rice's Tudor Fieldhouse.

The game had a bit of a gambling feel to it as the Trojans, to start the game, were as hot from the three-point line as the guy who gets on the roll at the craps table.

But like the guy at the craps table, the Trojans cooled off about midway through the first half, and try as they might, they could just never get off on another hot streak and blew their wad.

The Owls meanwhile played it steady, like that guy at the blackjack table who just calmly builds up his chip count by making the safe bets and hitting on 21 every five or six hands or so.

UALR shot out to the early and big lead, grabbing a 21-12 lead with 10:27 left in the first half. But the Trojans grabbed this lead on the strength of five three-pointers, and the Owls slowly crawled back into the game as they made some defensive adjustments and forced some UALR stops, which in turn got the Trojans to cool down from behind the three-point arc. Meanwhile, the Owls started getting their guys open and hitting their own shots.

"Teams knock some shots down," head coach Ben Braun said. "We had to make a few adjustments on their ball screens. We had to close out a little bit differently. We had to get a little bit more aggressive on players coming off screens, but I felt we got back to the ball. We did a better job of challenging shots in the second half...Our confidence was there, we knew could get some stops. It wasn't so much on the offensive end. I think we felt we could score."

The Owls were paced, once again, by forward Arsalan Kazemi who nearly pulled off the double-double, knocking down 15 points while grabbing nine boards. But the Owls spread the love around as point guard Tamir Jackson finished with 12 points and eight assists and guard Connor Frizzelle finished with 13 hard earned points -- six points came off a free throws he earned by driving the lane.

The Owls shot 51.1 percent for the game with nearly every player getting at least a point or an assist. The Owls finished the night with an amazing total of 21 assists. An amazing total since that equated to nearly one assist per basket as the Owls made 24 shots on the night.

"The good thing right now is that it doesn't matter who is going to score on our team," Kazemi said. "All the guys, they mostly try to win the game. That is the main point. When you want to win the game, you take whatever it takes to win the game. And that's basically it."

UALR just couldn't keep pace
This was key for the Owls in that spreading the ball kept the UALR defense bouncing about the court, and didn't allow them to play down and focus on shutting down Kazemi.

"We've got some guys who can knock some shots down," Braun said. "I think, we're going to end up, as the season goes on, we're going to end up getting some of those guys some good looks."

This is what Braun wants from his team, players who realize that they can't initiate their own shots, and will work to find their spot on the floor, rather while hustling down the court on a fast break, working for the rebound, or spotting up on a screen and knocking down the shot.

"If we can play in that format, or even in transition, we're going to get some good looks," he said. "But it's up to our team to get each other shots. When you get a shot, it's got to be a shot for our team. By our team, and for our team."

And just like at the craps table in Vegas, the Trojans got on a hot roll with the shooter towards the end of the game, knocking the score from 62-45 Rice with 2:46 left to get it within nine points. But that last roll of the dice was too little, too late, and the Owls got the well-deserved win.

Now it's off to Vegas for real, where the Owls will play three games in three nights next Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday against Stetson, Miami, and Oral Roberts.

SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The Owls will leave for Las Vegas on Sunday, and Braun said he expects to have to use his entire roster to make it through the three-in-three nights....For those making the trip, the games will be played at the South Point Arena at the South Point Hotel and Casino....The Owls return to action in Houston after Christmas, hosting LSU on December 29, TCU on January 2, and Tulane on January 8....And seen at the game was former UH coach Tom Penders.

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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