The score could have been named at any point during the evening thus the final tally was largely irrelevant. Coming out of a 10-day break for final exams, what was of critical significance was how Rice performed.
Would the Owls appear lethargic following their lengthy layoff, or were they chomping at the bit to take the court for the first time since Dec. 3? Would they pick up where they left off, defending with vigor and sharing the basketball selflessly, or did their good habits require reinforcement?
That Louisiana College served as the opponent was immaterial. What the Owls needed to do was adhere to previous standards of excellence.
Rice throttled its Division III opposition on Wednesday night at Tudor Fieldhouse, racing to a 109-51 win that matched the third-largest margin of victory in program history. More important than the point total, the fourth-most in a single game, was the defense the Owls played and the energy they used to stifle Louisiana College at most every turn.
"I thought we set the tone defensively to start the game, and we talked about that," Rice coach Ben Braun said. "When you get a lead or you got things going, we want this to be part of our identity. We talked about pretty much the defensive end and getting better at challenging shots, getting better at getting defensive rebounds (and) not giving people percentages that they've been shooting on us. We did a good job the first half."
If the outcome was in doubt with just under 15 minutes remaining in the first half and the Owls (7-2) leading 19-9, all concern was squashed when Rice scored 20 of the ensuing 22 points. The Owls ran away and hid at the free-throw line and in transition, converting layups and second-chance shots when they weren't parading to the charity stripe.
They limited the Wildcats (4-2) to 22.2 percent shooting and more than doubled their rebound total prior to intermission. That defensive dominance translated into easy offense, with Rice scoring 34 of 58 first-half points in the paint and 14 off 10 Louisiana College turnovers.
Their control on the boards came courtesy of who else? junior forward Arsalan Kazemi. By the break Kazemi had corralled as many defensive rebounds (six) as the Wildcats, and he opened the second half just one rebound shy of his 34th career double-double. His energy was palpable, particularly via his penchant for crashing the defensive glass and looking to orchestrate the Owls' break at almost every opportunity.
The bludgeoning continued unabated in the second half. The Owls led by as many as 63 and, because they were so effective at flipping turnovers and defensive rebounds into easy baskets, didn't face many opportunities to actually run their offense. During one six-minute stretch where the lead swelled to 53 points with a 22-2 run, Rice scored exclusively on layups, dunks and at the line excluding one 3-pointer from freshman Seth Gearhart. The game was a magnificent refresher.
"It was a great game for us to start getting it going after 10 days not playing basketball," said Kazemi, who posted 20 points and 16 rebounds and four steals. "We came with a great intensity, but at the end of the game it was kind of like an open gym. We stopped playing defense and all we were looking for was to score on the offensive end.
"That's why we're not happy about it. If we look at the future right now we play some of the great teams in college basketball. If we play like that, of course we have no chance to beat those teams."
If Louisiana College failed to offer Rice a test, Lamar on Saturday will serve as the perfect bridge between Wednesday and Monday's showdown with Temple. What follows are road games at No. 22 Texas A&M, Texas and TCU sandwiched around a home tilt against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The challenges will stiffen, and the Wildcats were the transition out of the break.
The totals weren't important. As the Owls continue to develop, they will measure their performances against their own exacting standards.
"We're always going to make this about who we are and what we do. It's not about who we play," Braun said. "I don't care if it's a ranked team, an unranked team, a tall team, a short team. It doesn't make any difference. We need to play at our best level and we need habits to continue.
"We have three games coming up in a short period of time. It's not going to matter who we're playing, it's going to be how we play. It's all going to come down to how we play."
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