Rice Women’s Basketball improved to .500 on the season with their first conference win, but something felt different in the Owls’ most recent victory.
Uncertainty hung in the air around Rice Women’s Basketball as they tipped off against Marshall on Thursday night. On one hand, it was just another game, the next one on the schedule following a disappointing 5-6 start. On the other, it was a chance to defend last season’s perfect standard that has seemed worlds away from where the current team had been in recent weeks.
The game started, ended, and the scoreboard served as evidence for the Owls’ resounding blowout victory. The win felt a lot like last season’s Conference USA games, all wins for the Blue and Gray. Now, winners of 20 conference games in a row, the 2020 Owls are growing into their identity. At least, that’s how senior leader Erica Ogwumike explains the subtle shift she’s seen over the past week.
“I don’t think anything was really different, but I think we learned a lot this past week,” Ogwumike said. “We’ve learned a lot in Puerto Rico. Each game we’re learning. So I think you’re going to see that growth in every single game.”
That maturation process has come with a cost. Rice doesn’t have any Power 5 wins under their belt. They were a disappointing 0-4 in those marquee opportunities. Because of that, it’s probably going to require a conference tournament victory to return to the NCAA Tournament. The Owls’ résumé isn’t likely to have enough star power to get them to the Big Dance as an at large selection. Rice isn’t unaware of the uphill battle they face. But they’re also undeterred.
Head coach Tina Langely said she was “actually pleased with a lot of things in the non conference [schedule]”, clarifying the young roster that’s had to rely on more freshman than they did at this point last season is progressing. “We have a lot of players playing that maybe didn’t play as much last year. And so we had a lot of growth to do,” Langely said. “We played great competition and every day we got better.”
Thursday’s “better” was two-fold. First, and most importantly, Rice locked played some of their most tenacious defense of the season. They had 50 rebounds, seven steals and forced 15 turnovers. Center Nancy Mulkey only had one block. Yet Rice held Marshall to three points in the second quarter (and 43 overall), putting the game out of reach before the halftime buzzer sounded.
As has been the Owls’ penchant under Langley, defense won the day. Rice was able to work through a 3-for-11 start to that dominant second quarter and still stretch a nine-point lead to a 23 point advantage. Poor shooting, something which has hampered this team already this season, gave way to some of the most purposeful defensive possessions Rice has yet to put forth.
“I definitely think that you saw us on the defensive end really stick to who we are as a defensive team,” Langley said. “On the offensive end, I think we’re just continuing to learn each other and, and learn our offense.”
When Rice is playing well on defense, it doesn’t often take 80 points to win games. Rice could have won with 50 on Thursday, but the extra work afforded to their young core was important. By the midpoint of the third quarter, Ogwumike, Mulkey, Sydne Wiggins and Jasmine Smith were all on the bench.
“I think we’re just locked in,” Ogwumike said after posting only her second double-double of the season. She looked as sharp as ever, cutting through the lane and scrapping for every rebound remotely in her vicinity. That focus spread to the rest of the team, impacting the off-the-ball movement and the shot selection all night. Even when they had cold spurts from the floor, how Rice attacked the basket was different.
And now it’s onto the next one. Langely called it the one that matters the most.”The game in front of us is the biggest game of the year,” she said, speaking of the team’s newfound focus. “If we continue to play with that mindset, I think we can have some success.” Whether it’s the mindset, the defense, the offense, or a mixture of all of it together, whatever Rice did to generate their blowout victory in their first conference game of the season, more of that, please.