Rice can't hold back UAB in overtime loss
There was a collective groan followed by a swarm of loud, barely audible profanities that preceded pronounced bleacher stomping.
These were familiar sounds of frustration, but Wednesday night at Tudor Fieldhouse the inspiration for the angst was different. For those accustomed to discouragement following a disheartening loss to a superior opponent, this felt worse. Disappointment by tantalization often yields a bitter disillusionment that can only be released like pressure by a valve.
Rice teased its small but fervent fan base yet again, blowing a 17-point second-half lead in losing to UAB 61-60 in overtime on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Blazers guard Robert Williams. The basket was Williams’ lone field goal and came nine seconds after Rice guard Connor Frizzelle drilled a 3 that lifted the Owls (11-8, 2-2 Conference USA) into the lead.
From a narrowed scope Williams’ heroics represented a bitter turn, for Frizzelle nailed his own buzzer-beater four nights earlier to defeat Tulane in New Orleans. The broader view revealed this: After building momentum with consecutive road wins, Rice surrendered it by falling at home to UAB (6-11, 1-3 C-USA), the only league team with a losing record.
“There’s nothing deflating at all about the first half of this game,” Rice coach Ben Braun said. “I thought we stepped up and we played tough. When we got down we battled back, so we showed some good signs of what tough teams can do. We’ve got to be a little more steady in the second half in terms of turning it on a little bit stronger. And then when we have an opportunity, seize that opportunity and take advantage of it.
“We did some good things. Now we’ve got to maintain that.”
Braun offered a similar refrain. This season has been a roller-coaster ride with peaks of promise and valleys of despair. Frizzelle wore the latter on his face in the aftermath, reflecting both his feelings in the moment and the Owls’ bizarre incapability to keep their ship moving.
Rice opened 4-0 against substandard competition then suffered a pair of losses to quality opponents, Northern Iowa and Iowa State, in South Padre Island. Rice reeled off three more wins, dropped consecutive games at home to Lamar and Temple, and then posted a program-altering victory at Texas A&M on Dec. 22 only to follow with a three-game skid.
Wins at SMU and Tulane made it easy to believe once again, especially with scuffling UAB and enigmatic Tulsa upcoming at Tudor Fieldhouse. When freshman guard Dylan Ennis nailed a trey 36 seconds into the second half, the Owls led 37-20 and appeared well on their way to taking another step toward their potential. Ennis played brilliantly in the first half while his classmate Ahmad Ibrahim, a recent addition to the starting lineup, provided the complementary scoring the Owls needed with junior forward Arsalan Kazemi hobbled by a bothersome left knee.
Suddenly a maddening lull arose, the type that keeps appearing at the most inopportune time. Rice missed 16 of its next 20 shots. UAB, ranked last in C-USA in field goal percentage (41.9 percent), shot 54.5 percent in the second half. The Owls, fourth in the league in rebounding margin (plus-5.5), were outrebounded 36-29. They did most everything wrong.
“It’s mostly on the leaders of the team,” Frizzelle said after scoring a season-high 17 points. “You’ve got to work on the mental side more in those tight situations.”
While they don’t necessarily suffer from a leadership void, the Owls occasionally appear rudderless. Kazemi twice tweaked his knee, including with 52.5 seconds left after Blazers center Cameron Moore sank a free throw that tied the game at 56. Kazemi limped to the bench and watched from there as the Owls’ defense faltered down the stretch.
Junior guard Tamir Jackson, who surrendered his starting slot to Ibrahim after a prolonged shooting slump, produced four points and one assist in 26 listless minutes. Senior forward Lucas Kuipers suffered through a 1-for-6 shooting night with that basket coming at the 16:57 mark of the first half. Frizzelle scored the Owls’ three overtime baskets.
That 17-point lead offered proof of what is possible. The problem facing Rice is that, 19 games into this season, consistency remains the concern. As their fans left in a huff, dismayed over another near miss, the Owls were left to revisit the same tenets they’ve discussed for several weeks.
“We just have to learn every day from what we do,” said Ennis, who finished with 13 points, five assists and five rebounds. “Putting it together, it’s going to be a team effort, not one or two players or just the coaches. We’ve got to stay on the same page and put all the negatives aside and just keep looking at the positives and keep moving forward.”
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