Rice women’s basketball went toe-to-toe with the Big East regular season champion Marquette but came up just short in their first NCAA Tournament game since 2005.
At 1:oo p.m. on Friday afternoon the pregame festivities came to a close and the lights turned on, shining brighter on Rice women’s basketball than they had all year. A scattered crowd of blues, maroons and trace amounts of gold filled Reed Arena in College Station, a host site for the first and second round of the Women’s NCAA Tournament. The ball was tipped, the pageantry was put aside, and Rice went back to what they know best — basketball.
Rice controlled the first tip and, despite being the lower-seeded team, looked every bit the equal of Marquette from the start. Eric Ogwumike opened the scoring with a corner three to give the Owls the lead which they maintained throughout the first 10 minutes of play. Marquette, who averaged 82.9 points per game this season, was held to eight points in the first quarter.
The Golden Eagles leveled the score in the second quarter before taking a one-point advantage into half. Trailing 20-19 at the break, Rice didn’t seem like much on an underdog. Nancy Mulkey was patroling the paint. The Owls had a host of shooters who’d gotten off to slow starts and Rice looked like they belonged. They just needed to finish.
Down, but not out
For the third game in a row, Rice trailed at halftime. And for the third game in a row, coach Tina Langley’s team made adjustments and executed. Rice started the third quarter on a 6-0 run as both teams heated up from the field. Ogwumike, Mulkey and Sydne Wiggins made some big shots to hold the lead, setting the team up for an all-important fourth quarter.
Rice would extend the lead to as many as nine before Marquette clawed back. Each team had their chance to win the game in regulation. Mulkey blocked Marquette’s last shot in the fourth quarter. That set up an inbound play with less than a second to play. Shani Rainey would get a shot off at the buzzer but it bounced off the rim.
Maquette would take an early lead in overtime and the Rice offense stalled. Eight total points were scored after regulation. Rice made one basket. At the final buzzer, Rice had been outscored for the first time in 2019, 58-54.
An incredible season comes to an end
Survive and advance is the steady drumbeat of the NCAA Tournament. 64 teams entered. By the end of the day on Saturday, only 32 will be going home. After falling in the first round, the Owls’ season, too, has come to an end. Reaching the big dance is an accomplishment in itself — one that the previous 13 Rice women’s basketball teams had failed to achieve.
The “what if”s and “if only” questions will linger, but those won’t change the tremendous successes this group has accomplished. And they’re not done just yet. The core players on this team are underclassmen. Ogwumike and Mulkey, who combined for 40 points and 17 rebounds with both be back, ready to make another run at a championship in 2020.