Rice basketball picked up its first Conference USA Tournament win under head coach Scott Pera, beating Southern Miss in a defensive struggle.
The beginnings of the only game of the preliminary round of the Conference USA Tournament didn’t look like most of the other games Rice basketball has played this season. The Owls made just one three-point attempt in the first half and newly minted C-USA Newcomer of the Year Travis Evee had no points.
Yet Rice still led.
“I know we shoot a lot of three,” head coach Scott Pera remarked following the win, “but we gotta get past that. We gotta defend every night for 40 minutes, because we’re not always going to shoot it great.”
Winning when the shots don’t fall has been a struggle for this team. So to see Rice start uncharacteristically cold, but take a 27-20 edge at the break was noteworthy. Southern Miss shot 32 percent from the field in the first half, with only 10 of their 20 points coming from outside the paint.
The Golden Eagles would adjust and punch back, reclaiming the lead early on in the second half and holding in for more than 10 minutes. But when Ege Havsa hit a crucial three to give Rice the lead with 4:28 to go, the Owls never looked back.
Rice would close the game on a 16-3 run. The shots started to fall, but it was the same defense that gave Southern Miss fits early that put the game away. In Pera’s own estimation, the Owls “were locked in defensively from the very first possession to the final buzzer.” And it showed.
Southern Miss did not record a field goal in the final six minutes of regulation, something Pera couldn’t recall happening anytime recently in the hundreds of games he’s coached. When that buzzer did sound, Pera and the Owls surpassed an important milestone. The win marked the first C-USA conference tournament of Pera’s tenure, something he called “another barrier we needed to knock down.”
Rice basketball has the chance to turn this small step into a bigger leap on Wednesday night against Marshall. The Owls and Thundering Herd had been previously scheduled to meet this season, but the games were canceled due to COVID-19 issues among the Owls’ program. Rice will be the underdog, but they won’t be deterred.
“It’s a big challenge for us,” Pera said. “But it’s March. We’re still playing and we’re happy and we’re excited.” And, as if to quell any doubts about the team’s ability to rise up once again, Pera was clear. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us,” he said. “We’re going to prepare. Our kids are going to be ready. And we’re going to go out there and let it fly. I know that.”
Rice basketball is scheduled to play Marshall at 6:00 p.m. tomorrow on ESPN+.