John Royal Ben Braun argues a call made against the Owls on Saturday
That the Owls were within three points with 35 seconds left on the clock, that the Owls were even in the game at any point despite shooting only 33.3 percent from the floor speaks of the tenacity of the team. It speaks to their ability to shut down opposing offenses, and to find ways to score points. It also speaks, unfortunately for the Owls, of their continued inability to close out games, and of their inability to put together a solid 40 minutes of basketball.
"We were two stops away," sophomore point guard Tamir Jackson said. "Just two or three stops away. We've just got to buckle down on defense, slide our feet, and stop people and get the rebound. 'Cause if we can stop people, we're going to score."
There's truth to what Jackson says. The Owls were just two or three defensive stops from getting over the hump and defeating the Miners. They've been two or three defensive stops away from winning most of their close losses this season.
Yet there's this. On several occasions in the closing minutes on Saturday, the Owls did make the necessary stops, only to fail on the offensive side. They would get a steal then miss a shot on their end. They'd force a turnover then miss the front end of a one-and-one, giving the ball back to UTEP on the rebound.
And for all of their efforts on the defensive end, the Rice offense was never able to solve the UTEP defense. Time and time again the Owls tried to run a play only to have the UTEP defense force them to pull back and begin again. Time and time again the Owls saw the shot clock get dangerously close to zero before finding a way to get up a shot.
"UTEP's just a good defensive team," said senior guard Cory Pflieger. "We know their strength is their defense, and they turn their defense into offense. We were doing our best to not make careless passes and make the right play at the right time."
The Owls led for a good part of the first half, a rather remarkable feat seeing as how sophomore forward and scoring and rebounding machine Arsalan Kazemi was anchored to the bench with two early fouls. But the Miners caught up with 4:09 left in the half, and they were in command from then on out, especially after they sprinted out to a 40-30 lead and forced Rice to try and come back against a defense they just couldn't figure out.
John Royal Tamir Jackson attempts a free throw against UTEP
"[We've] gotten better defensively," head coach Ben Braun said. "And while we did a good job on Polk and Culpepper, an excellent job...Defensively, from that standpoint, we did a good job. But we've got to be a little more intelligent, a little more focused on our containment defense..."
The primary thing that UTEP did that Rice couldn't do was work the containment defense. UTEP focused on stopping Kazemi, which they pulled off with great success, holding him to only five points -- three of which came from the free throw line -- as he struggled to find any kind of offensive rhythm on a night when he was saddled with foul trouble and a defense that swarmed him.
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With Kazemi contained, it was up to the rest of the players, especially those shooting from the outside to get the job done. And get the job done they didn't. Jackson was just three-for-13 and Connor Frizzelle was five-for-12. Thus the Owls' awful-looking shooting percentage and the loss, which knocked the Owls' record down to 11-12 (3-6 in conference play) for the season.
"We've improved in some areas, there's no doubt about that," Braun said after the game.
And he's right. The team has improved. In years past, the Owls would not have been able to stay close in a game where they shot only 33.3 percent from the floor. Yet they're still lacking in that one area of improvement, the ability to win games. It is one thing to get close, but at some point, close just isn't good enough.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The Owls are off for most of the week. Their next game is on Saturday night when they play at UAB....UTEP has owned Arsalan Kazemi this season. He has scored a total of seven points in two games while shooting just two-for-10 from the floor...UTEP has won the last five games against Rice, and they lead the all-time series 14-9.