By Kevin Sweeney
These are the types of games that can change the entire landscape of a conference.
Rice, which has made great strides in year three of the Mike Rhoades era, had a win over preseason C-USA pick UAB in sight for much of the night but couldn’t quite pull it off, falling 88-81 in overtime in one of the most exciting games of the college basketball season to date.
The game was tight throughout, something no better illustrated by the game being tied at both halftime and at the end of regulation. Neither team ever led by double figures, and the game was within one possession for the majority of the second half.
In the end, the veteran Blazers, who have 7 players remaining from the team that upset Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament 2 years ago, made enough plays to win, including making a ridiculous 30-33 from the foul line.
After sophomore guard Marcus Evans, who recorded his 1000th career point in the game, drained a jumper with just under 6 minutes to play to give the Owls a 64-59 lead, UAB took control. The Blazers went on a 12-3 run to snatch a 71-67 lead with 2:47 to play.
The end of regulation was nothing short of wild. Rice had the ball down by 2 with under a minute to go when Egor Koulechov, who had 29 points in the game, had his shot blocked by Tosin Mehinti. However, Mehinti turned it over, and Koulechov couldn’t be stopped the second time, scoring with 14 seconds to go to tie the score. After a timeout by UAB, Denzel Watts drained a huge 3 with just 2.5 seconds to play that appeared to seal the game. The Owls inbounded the ball, and Koulechov was fouled by Mehinti shooting a three with under a second to play. Koulechov stepped up and drained all 3 free throws to improbably send the game to overtime.
The Blazers were unfazed in overtime despite the disappointing end to regulation and controlled the overtime period. UAB shut down the Rice offense, and got to the foul line 10 times in the 5 minute OT period, allowing them to pull away.
Its the second game in a row that Rice stood toe-to-toe with a conference favorite. They fell by 3 to Middle Tennessee State on Thursday. While they couldn’t get a win, they made a strong case to be the 3rd best team in the conference, something that seemed very far away when Rhoades entered the program. They will be back in action next Saturday against North Texas.
Center William Lee led the way for the Blazers with 20 points, while Chris Cokley posted a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds. They also got big production from their bench, with 14 points from Javien Williams and 13 from Deion Lavender. The 9-7 Blazers will take on Western Kentucky on Thursday.