Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 2/8/12
HOUSTON Who knows where this ride will end for the Rice Owls, this nausea-inducing pendulum of good and bad that leaves their supporters wondering what's next. Sometimes relishing the now is the best option. What unfolded on Wednesday night, a 79-71 victory over the Houston Cougars at Hofheinz Pavilion, was enough to make even the most jaded fan again feel that the youthful Owls took another step in an ascendant direction. The Cougars led big early and challenged Rice late, at least until the Owls hit another gear for which Houston had no answer. These cross-town rivals traded blows throughout the second half, with neither leading by more than four points until the Owls (14-11, 5-5 Conference USA) reeled off a decisive 9-0 run started, innocuously enough, by two Omar Oraby free throws with 5:23 to play. Oraby scored all seven of his points during that spurt, one bolstered in part by the Owls' deft switch to a 2-3 zone coming out of a timeout a minute later. "I was trying to get to the zone a lot earlier; we just couldn't get a dead ball to change our defense," Rice coach Ben Braun said. "It must have been five possessions, four possessions because we actually were concerned about picking up some fouls, concerned about having Omar on the floor trying to cut down on penetration. That was a really solid move. It's something we've been working on and instituted it in games with some success." The Cougars (11-12, 3-7 C-USA) claimed they were prepared for the sudden change, but their performance indicated otherwise. Following a 30-second timeout and an Oraby free throw, Rice switched from man-to-man and Cougars forward Jonathan Simmons immediately turned over the basketball with an errant pass to Arsalan Kazemi. Rice converted that steal into a Tamir Jackson layup. Joseph Young followed by missing a 3-pointer from a relatively clean look against the zone. For the Cougars things deteriorated quickly as Young was whistled for traveling, and two missed jumpers helped Rice extend to a 74-66 lead. It wasn't so much that the Owls altered their defensive philosophy. It was the timing of the decision that left the Cougars, who enjoyed success attacking the Owls off dribble penetration, flat-footed. With 4:34 remaining, the Cougars were facing something completely unexpected. "At the end of the game the intensity was picking up, and for them to try to slow the game down with the zone was tough and we kind of got stagnant," said Simmons, who recorded his first career double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds. "To see it the last four minutes of the game shocked us a little bit. We were ready but we got a little stagnant because we hadn't seen it the whole game." The Owls did so much more right than adjusting their defensive strategy. They rallied from a 13-0 deficit caused by an 0-for-14 shooting start. Rice connected on 12 of 15 field goals to close the first half, racing to an eight-point lead on the strength of their stellar 3-point shooting. Cougars coach James Dickey wanted his team to defend the perimeter with vigor, but the Owls hit 7 of 10 3-pointers before the intermission. Following the break the Owls attacked the Cougars in transition, compiling 10 fast-break points while committing only three turnovers. "That's huge against a pressure team like Houston," Braun said. "They've turned their opponents over at a lot greater rate than seven. For our team to have the composure and make pretty good decisions in the break was good. Our guys took care of the ball. We passed the ball well." Following their sour start, the Owls shot 65.2 percent and racked up 19 assists. Dickey preached defense but didn't witness much to his liking. "We've got to get better defending on the perimeter with high hands. We've got to get to shooters quicker," Dickey said. "We've got to be committed to more of the defensive end of the ball." For a stretch the Cougars' substandard defense didn't matter. Houston erased the Owls' 35-27 lead with a 7-0 spurt to close the half. They opened the second stanza making shots from all over the floor with Kirk Van Slyke providing a sudden jolt before Young (13 points) caught fire with an array of moves off the dribble. His deft up-and-under basket provided the Cougars their last lead at 64-63 with 5:59 remaining. But Braun had one last trick up his sleeve. And after his freshmen, namely Jarelle Reischel (16 points) and Dylan Ennis (10 points, six assists), helped carry the offensive load, his defense sealed the deal. "At first I didn't really want to go into the zone because I was playing the 3 (small forward) so I didn't want to be in the bottom (of the zone defense)," said Jackson, who produced 13 points and five assists. "But Coach made a great decision and subbed Jarelle in so I could go up top. Once (Young) missed that one shot I knew they were going to pretty much stand around and shoot threes and not try to attack the zone. "That helped us out a lot." Follow me on Twitter at FSH_Owls
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