Rice women’s basketball stayed perfect, rallying in Frisco to win the Conference USA Tournament and clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament field.
A 30 game season came down to 40 minutes on a Saturday night in Frisco. Rice needed a win in the Conference USA Basketball Tournament to secure a trip to the NCAA Tournament. They got it, but it took every ounce of grit and competitiveness they had left.
Middle Tennessee made it clear from the opening possession they would not go quietly. The Lady Raiders were the clear aggressor through the first half, making active passes to set up four three-pointers in the first quarter and an early eight-point lead.
With the Rice offense struggling out of the gate, MTSU extended their lead to as many as 10 — the same margin Rice trailed by against Western Kentucky in the semis. It wouldn’t last.
Nancy Mulkey was the most consistent player for the Owls on both sides of the ball in the first half, scoring 13 points as she racked five blocks on the other end of the floor. She would finish with 24 points, eight blocks and five rebounds. Mulkey was named CUSA Tournament MVP for her efforts.
Digging deep when it counted
Nicole Iademarco jumpstarted the offense in the second half, hitting two big threes to spur a 7-0 run for the Owls. As Iademarco keyed in from long range, Mulkey’s confidence continued to grow on the interior. She turned around and took some semi-contested shots from the edge of the paint to help spark the Rice rally.
Syden Wiggins drained a floater in the key to take the lead in the third quarter. Rice relinquished it. Middle Tennessee threatened but was never able to regain a lead they’d held for the majority of the contest despite Conference USA Player of the Year Erica Ogwumike spending a considerable amount of time on the bench with foul trouble.
Ogwumike would return to the game with four fouls at the 4-minute mark of the fourth quarter. She promptly knocked down two free throws and drained a deep three, taking over when the team needed her most to secure the Owls’ first Conference USA Tournament Championship.
Survive and advance
As the confetti falls, the team can exhale and reminisce. Rice women’s basketball won an almost unbelievable amount of games this season. The 28 victories mark a program high — one of the countless records broken this season by a team which has already cemented themselves among the best in school history.
Winners of 21-straight and a perfect 19-0 against Conference USA opponents, Rice has blown past lofty preseason expectations and secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. For one day, they’ll enjoy the moment. On Monday they’ll discover who their next opponent will be. Then it’s back to business as they seek to build upon an already historic run.