Houston - Rice basketball recap

Houston couldn't hold on to a late lead and watched cross-town rival Rice run away in overtime, 79-71, for the Owls' first win in the series in nine games.

GETTING INSIDE

On Jan. 22, Houston held a lead -- albeit by only one point -- on the visiting UTEP Miners with just 3 minutes, 4 seconds remaining.

The Cougars lost by five, 57-52.

On Wednesday at cross-town rival Rice, the Cougars led 54-50 with 2:25 left.

The game went to overtime and was still tied with 3:21 left before the Owls flew away with an eight-point victory, 79-71.

The point is, Houston isn't exactly living up to the toughness -- physically or mentally -- that first-year head coach James Dickey thought his team had just about a week ago.

As Houston tries to regroup for a Saturday road game at East Carolina, Dickey is in desperate need of his team to start showing the ability to perform under pressure and hold on to leads late in games.

Rice, a team that had lost eight -straight to Houston and won just its third league game in the past two years, got all the rebounds, all the loose balls and drained all the key free throws and jump shots down the stretch of the rivalry game, leaving the Cougars where they were a few weeks ago when C-USA play began: In search of a new identity.

BEYOND THE BOX SCORE: Houston's frontcourt has gone from being a strength to a huge disappointment in a matter of a few weeks. Part of the problem was four missed games from F Kendrick Washington, but he's back now. He and former starter and team statistical leader Maurice McNeill simply haven't responded well lately to reduced minutes, and it's hurting the team. In the loss to Rice, Houston's top four forwards -- McNeil, Washington, Kirk Van Slyke and Alandise Harris -- combined for 30 points, 16 rebounds, 8-of-22 shooting (36.4 percent) and 12 turnovers. And it's not as if they were playing against a Rice team known for having a dominating frontcourt.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Houston couldn't hold on to a late lead and watched cross-town rival Rice run away in overtime, 79-71, for the Owls' first win in the series in nine games. The Cougars' frontcourt didn't perform, although Rice got 41 points from guards Zamal Nixon (15), Adam Brown (14) and Darian Thibodeaux (12).

--The Cougars are second in C-USA in 3-point field goal defense through Wednesday, allowing teams to shoot just 29.6 percent from beyond the arc. But Rice hit 7-of-16 3-pointers for a 43.8 percent clip on Wednesday, the highest mark in five games against the Cougars.

--The Cougars had a season-low six turnovers in a Jan. 19 win over Tulsa and three days later had just seven turnovers in a loss to UTEP. Through Jan. 23, Houston was averaging 14.3 turnovers per game, third most in Conference USA.

--The Cougars had a season-high 4,513 fans show up to Hofheinz Pavilion for a Jan. 22 game vs. UTEP, a rematch of last year's C-USA tournament championship game in which the Cougars beat the C-USA regular-season champion Miners to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. The outcome wasn't the same, as UTEP won 57-52, but Houston coach James Dickey was excited about the turnout and apologetic about disappointed the growing fan base.

"I'm sorry because they seem to really like this team, and we couldn't give them the win tonight," Dickey said.

--The Cougars continue to use the 3-point shot to their advantage on both ends of the floor. Through games played Jan. 22, Houston was No. 2 in C-USA games in 3-point shooting percentage (44.9) and No. 2 in 3-point shooting defense (29.3).

BY THE NUMBERS: 15 -- Between Dec. 18 and Jan. 15, a span of six games in which Houston went 4-2, the Cougars blocked 15 shots. In the recent wins over Tulsa (seven) and loss to UTEP (eight), the Cougars had 15 blocks. The eight in the UTEP game were a season high.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "No, don't even mention it. Next question. Don't mean to cut you off, but no. We didn't play well enough." -- Houston coach James Dickey, when asked whether a Jan. 22 loss to UTEP could be viewed as a moral victory.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAME:

--at East Carolina, Jan. 29

KEY MATCHUPS: After junior C Darrius Morrow's career-high 33 points in a Jan. 22 win over Marshall, and considering the Cougars have been scaling back the playing time of Fs Kendrick Washington and Maurice McNeil in recent games, it's hard to see a more vital matchup than trying to slow down Morrow in this game. Inside points will be key for both teams.

FUTURES MARKET: Houston Fs Maurice McNeil and Kendrick Washington averaged 16.5 minutes per game in a win over Tulsa (Jan. 19) and a loss to UTEP (Jan. 22). In Washington's case, the sophomore had missed the previous four games with a staph infection in his elbow, and his minutes were being limited while he gets back in game shape. McNeil, who was suspended for a Jan. 15 win over SMU for an unspecified team rules violation, has either not returned to the team's good graces or coach James Dickey has decided the future for the Cougars is going small. The Cougars have been very guard-heavy recently, and it resulted in a win over Tulsa and a competitive loss to UTEP, so this could be a sign of things to come.

PLAYER NOTES

--Senior F Maurice McNeill led Houston in scoring four times and in rebounds 10 times in 13 non-conference games. After Wednesday's loss at Rice in which McNeill had eight points and five rebounds, the senior from New York has not led his team in scoring once in six C-USA games. The only time he so much as tied for the team lead in rebounds was when he had four boards in a Jan. 5 loss at Southern Miss.

--Senior G Zamal Nixon failed to get to the free-throw line in a Jan. 22 loss to UTEP, just three days after the senior was a perfect 12-for-12 in a win over Tulsa. That game matched the best free-throw shooting night from a C-USA player this year. UTEP G Randy Culpepper and Nixon tied for the most free throws made in a game without a miss this season. Culpepper, coincidentally, also did so against Tulsa on Jan. 5.

--Senior G Adam Brown scored a game-high 22 points vs. UTEP on Jan. 22. It was his seventh 20-point game of the season, the most of any Cougar player. Brown had just three 20-point games heading into this season.


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