Rice Owls head coach Ben Braun was worried about the Tulane Green Wave last week. Even as the Owls were defeating LSU and TCU for some impressive out-of-conference wins, Braun was worried about a Tulane team he thought might be the most improved team in C-USA.
And on a night when the 8-7 Owls scored 81 points, Braun might have been proven right as Tulane won a thrilling 85-81 game in which, for most part, neither team was able to get a lead of more than two points. But on a night when Rice forward Arsalan Kazemi was putting on another clinic in basketball excellence, Tulane did one better as they shot 51.1 percent from the field, including an incredible 66.7 percent from three-point range (going a perfect seven for seven in the second half).
"Tulane shot the ball well," Braun said. "Let's start with -- so many times in this game, in our profession, we don't give credit to the opponents. And I told our guys, I said, guys, Tulane shot the ball. They were seven for seven from three [point range in the second half] and they presented a tough match-up for us."
Tulane played with a four-guard lineup for most of the night that kept the Owls a little off balance, but Rice was able to regroup and keep themselves from falling out of the game. Rice's largest lead of the night was seven points after a Tamir Jackson jumper made the score 21-14 about midway through the first half. But Rice was not able to put the dagger in Tulane and found the score knotted at 31-31 come half time.
Tulane was hot in the second period, and Rice was just not able to get the necessary defensive stops in the second half. But Rice held tight because Rice was hitting shot after shot from inside. But in the end, Tulane was able to get out to the six-point lead with 2:15 left in the game, and after that, it turned into a free-throw fest.
"We score 81 points; that should be good enough to win basketball games," Braun said. "But we're not going to give up 85 and win very many basketball games. So it comes down to the defensive end. We can talk about a lot of things in this game, but we're going to have to tighten up defensively."
Kazemi did his job for the Owls, getting career highs with 28 points and four blocks. He also pulled down 13 rebounds and was all over the floor, attempting to make any plays necessary to get the Owls the win. Trey Stanton proved to be an inside force, as well. But with Rice unable to stop Tulane, and with Tulane hitting shot after shot in the second half, there was just nothing Kazemi or the Owls were able to do.
This was the eighth straight win for Tulane over Rice on the basketball court, and Kazemi wasn't pleased. Yet while giving credit to Tulane for a tremendous game and their ability to hit three pointer after three pointer, he agreed with Braun's assessment that Rice's primary problem wasn't Tulane's shooting ability, it was Rice's inability to do anything about Tulane's shooting ability.
"Defense is the thing that's going to win our game for us," Kazemi said. "We could have done a better job on our defensive end."
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Another key issue for Rice was, as always, problems at the free throw line. This game saw Rice make only 18 of 26 shots from the charity stripe. A few more makes and maybe Rice gets the win, or gets into overtime. And while Tulane was nailing buckets from the three point line, Rice was only able to hit three of 13, ruining an otherwise good night offensively.
"It was a tight game," Braun said. "We've just got to do a better job of tightening up in the second half. We've got some things to work on, but this is an opportunity for us to grow."
Rice gets that opportunity to grown on Saturday when they head up to Oklahoma to take on the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. And the growing opportunity will continue next Wednesday when they host Southern Miss, one of the conference's stronger teams.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Rice's last victory against Tulane was in the 2007 C-USA opener, which Rice won 75-70....The Owls have now lost four straight conference openers....Except for the Arizona game, which Rice lost by 27 points, the average margin of defeat for their other losses has been 3.2 points....Last night's score was tied 18 times, and there were 18 lead changes.