Knocking off UAB was a big win for the Rice basketball program, but the Owls hope this wild week won’t be the end of their upward ascent.
Rice basketball is riding the tail end of one of a rollercoaster week that’s led them through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. They crested the peak of that eight-day stretch when they knocked off conference favorite UAB at Tudor Fieldhouse. That spectacular win will be remembered for quite some time at South Main, but those forty minutes were on Saturday were only part of what made the victory so special.
Rice Athletics staff scoured the record books to find a recent comparable. The best they could find? UAB was No. 38 in NET rankings entering their game against the Owls. Rice beat New Mexico, No. 32 in RPI, on the road in December of 2015. The Lobos would fall off down the stretch and finish a dismal 17-15 on the year. The last time Rice beat a team that was great from wire to wire? It might date back to their WAC days.
Given that context, the win might be even grander than it was initially assumed to be. Few could have seen it coming, especially with it coming a week removed from a 32 point drubbing at the hands of a North Texas squad that UAB had just defeated two days prior.
That loss was one of the most painful in recent memory. Rice has lost by 30 or more points to a conference foe on just one other occasion in the past three seasons. Oddly enough, that other blowout defeat came at the hands of Louisiana Tech in late February. One week later they upset Marshall in the Conference USA Tournament, arguably the best win of head coach Scott Pera’s tenure at the time.
What’s it like, going from the valley to the mountain in such a short time? “I’m tired. I’m emotionally spent,” head coach Scott Pera said after the game, still grinning before making his way to the locker room to celebrate.
By that point in the Zoom interview session, he’d already gushed about the significance of the win. He’d talked about what it meant to the program, to his players, to his staff. Praise had been allotted to everyone to which it was due. Pera was smiling, but he carried the weight of a season ravaged by COVID-19, complications which Pera has frequently referred to as the most grueling conditions he’s ever had to coach through.
That’s part of what made this win special. To fight through COVID-19 delays and struggle to get their feet back under themselves against North Texas was daunting. “That wasn’t us.” Pera said, defiantly, “That’s not who we are.”
And what exactly is that? Who is this new-look Rice basketball team that can topple the best the conference has to offer? And more importantly, what’s next?
Mentally (and emotionally) Pera and his team have already moved on. A tenuous stretch of some of the conference’s top teams awaits the Owls next weekend when they play at Western Kentucky and Marshall. That’s exactly where Pera hopes to go next.
His aim? “To compete for the upper half of this league,” he said. “To put ourselves in position on Tuesday, Wednesday in the conference tournament, maybe we don’t have to play.”
Who would have thought we’d be entertaining the possibility of a bye before the Conference USA Tournament a week removed from one of the most discouraging losses Pera has seen in his tenure as the Rice basketball head coach? Pera didn’t seem phased by the quick transition. Neither did guard Travis Evee.
“We said the whole summer we’re going to take the next step,” Evee said. “And I think today was a great win for us, a great win for the program and just shows all the work we put in.”
Perhaps that monumental win could indeed be a building block for the future. We’ll find out soon enough. Rice visits Western Kentucky on Thursday.