Rice women’s basketball stayed perfect in conference play, sweeping their second weekend series with two hard-fought wins over UTEP.
It’s been hard for visiting teams to win at Tudor Fieldhouse. The Rice women’s basketball hasn’t dropped a conference game at home in nearly three years. The Owls have been tested, just as they were this past weekend, but they’ve always found a way to come out on top.
Rice opened their first couplet of home conference games on Friday, outlasting surges from the Miners with strong defense and opportunistic shooting. Lauren Schwartz led the team with 16 points including three triples. Nancy Mulkey contributed five rebounds and 15 points. Nine different players scored.
Saturday was another tightly contested contest. Stingy defense on both sides led to just 39 combined points in the first half. Had it not been for the clock expiring on a last-second three, Rice could have found themselves trailing at the break for the first time this season. Instead, the Owls took a narrow two-point lead into halftime.
Their trademark lockdown third quarter was once more a difference maker. Rice outscored UTEP 15-7, stretching the lead to 10 points. That gave the Owls plenty of breathing room to secure a 4-0 start in conference play. UTEP was held to 43 points on 27.1% shooting.
After giving up 68 points on Friday, the defense responded with tenacity. “I still think we can continue to get better [in rebounding],” head coach Tina Langley said after the series, “but I like our toughness and our ability to stick to a philosophy that I feel works really well for our team.”
Player Spotlight | Sydne Wiggins
Wiggins has been one of the most reliable and versatile players on the court for the Owls over the past three seasons. The senior guard scores, rebounds and finds outlets for her teammates. Her aggressiveness against the UTEP zone gave Rice crucial opportunities when the offense was slow out of the gate. On defense, she stuck to her opponents like glue.
On Friday, Wiggins set up her teammates for success, tallying five assists to her seven points and seven rebounds. Saturday it was her turn, leading the team with 15 points. The ability to do both well, to facilitate and to score, makes her an invaluable asset to the team and someone Langley called “a very dangerous player” for the Owls on the court.
Stat Corner | Gallegos ghosts
The Rice defense was superb once again this weekend, but their work on UTEP’s star guard was particularly impressive. Katia Gallegos came into the weekend averaging 17.4 points per game. She led UTEP in scoring, assists, steals and was second in rebounds. She’d been held under 10 points once in her first seven games, scoring 20+ three times.
Rice held Gallegos to nine points on 3-for-15 from the field on Friday. Then they followed it up by limiting her to nine points on 4-of-9 shooting in the first three quarters on Saturday. She scored eight points in the fourth quarter, but that came after the Owls had secured a double-digit lead. Too little, too late.
For the weekend she shot 31.0 percent from the field compared to her typical 46.3 percent, roughly 50 percent worse than her average outing.
Rice hits the road next weekend for what could be their toughest test yet in conference play. They’ll play a Friday/Saturday set against Old Dominion, who along with the Owls, were one of three teams to receive first place votes in the Conference USA preseason polls. The Monarchs swept Florida Atlantic on the road this weekend after dropping both games of their opening series at home to FIU.