It was difficult to predict exactly how things would unfold on Wednesday evening for Rice giving the gaping hole in its rotation.
Junior forward Arsalan Kazemi strained his back against Northern Iowa last Friday at the South Padre Island Invitational and played through the pain the following afternoon against Iowa State. He exhausted his resiliency this week during practice, forcing Rice coach Ben Braun to make the prudent decision and rest Kazemi against Houston Baptist.
That move left the Owls bereft of the rebounding, interior scoring and infectious vibrancy Kazemi provides most nights. That he was missing his first game since Dec. 2, 2009 put the Owls in a precarious position of needing to discover an identity without their most identifiable player.
Collectively the Owls picked up the slack and filled the void, crashing the boards in concert to will their way past the Huskies 78-66 at Sharp Gym.
"I really didn't know what to expect in terms of where our rebounds would come from and where our go-to baskets are going to come from," Braun said. "I kind of looked around and we had different guys we looked at. Obviously it's a good sign that our team could respond in the way that we did. I thought collectively our guys did a pretty good job."
Sophomore center Omar Oraby stepped into the starting lineup and produced a career-high 12 rebounds to pair with 11 points. Freshman point guard Dylan Ennis, inserted into the starting lineup to combat the Huskies' up-tempo attack, added eight rebounds. Senior forward Lucas Kuipers chipped in eight boards, including a team-high four on offense.
Even without Kazemi, who began the week ranked second in Conference USA in rebounding at 11.5 per game, the Owls (5-2) corralled 34.1 percent of available offensive rebounds. That dovetailed nicely with their 19-6 edge in second-chance points, an advantage that curtailed the Huskies (2-5) as they attempted to run and shoot their way to an upset.
As for the 11.7 points per game the Owls lost with Kazemi on the bench in street clothes, freshman forward Ahmad Ibrahim took up the cause. On the heels of emergent performances in South Padre Island and emboldening workouts, Ibrahim erupted for a career-high 19 points.
If you blinked, you missed the flurry of first-half points. With the Owls trailing 13-12 and in need of a spark, Ibrahim drilled a 3-pointer, tipped in his missed baseline layup attempts, and hit another trey. He followed with his own 8-0 run, extending the Rice lead to 31-23 at the 6:27 mark.
That burst enabled Rice to seize control, extending to an 11-point lead that provided the cushion necessary to fend off the dogged Huskies. Ibrahim was due for a breakout of this magnitude, for a showcase that validated his versatility and reputed penchant for scoring in bunches.
"I struggled at first the first couple of games. I wasn't really used to (the college game)," Ibrahim said. "Then South Padre we didn't win, but personally I started to get better and it made me want to play better every day. It really helped me because my confidence was up."
Ibrahim shot 7 for 11, hitting 5-of-7 3-pointers. He grabbed six rebounds and blocked two shots, doing a bit of everything like Kazemi.
"I'm feeling great," Ibrahim said. "It feels like high school."
Finding the scoring to overcome the loss of Kazemi wasn't too much of a concern, not with junior guard Tamir Jackson at the controls. He keyed the 10-0 run that erased the Huskies' early 8-2 lead, and it was Jackson who tallied 14 second-half points to thwart subsequent HBU rallies.
For three seasons Jackson has teamed dynamically with Kazemi. It was interesting to study his demeanor with his partner sidelined, completely capable of carrying the load when the Owls required occasional heroics. Like everyone else, Jackson was curious as to how the Owls would handle this stress test. And like everyone else, he came away impressed.
"We haven't been playing great the past three games, and not having one of our top players, top rebounders, top shot blockers not playing is kind of a culture shock," Jackson said after scoring 20 points. "We just had to get used to it, and then we picked it up late first half, second half.
"A lot of people are in my ear telling me I need to take over from the get-go, but I feel like I want to be the setup guy first. And then if we need a score, I'll do it. If we need somebody to get assists, I'll do it. If we need somebody to rebound and play defense, I'll do that. Whatever we need for the team to win I'll do it."
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