Sunday, February 22, 2004

Owls "Bust" Louisiana-Lafayette Right in the Brackets 

The Rice Owls and the Louisiana-Lafayette Rajun Cajuns both came in to their ESPN Bracket Buster game with a chip on their shoulder. Both teams wanted to take advantage of the national exposure to show their stuff for members of the NCAA Selection Committee. And the result was a sometimes sloppy, very physical game that the Owls pulled out 81-76.

But the win may prove costly, as the Owl center Yamar Diene was ejected with five minutes to play after an exchange of elbows with ULL's Cedric Williams turned into an exchange of blows. With the ejection comes an automatic one game suspension which will keep the Owls starting center out of Monday Night's critical WAC matchup with Fresno State.

The Owls won the game at the free throw line, as the Owls made 25 of 32 shots from the charity stripe, while the Cajuns only had five foul shots the entire game. The foul differential did not seem to be any result of referee favoritism though, as the Cajuns were all over the Owls, with one errant elbow cutting point guard Rashid Smith's lip so bad you could see his teeth. ULL played very aggressive defense, and looked to run early and often and nearly overwhelmed the Owls with a 19- 2 run early in the game. The Owls looked like they had not recovered from Midterm Week as the Owls had ten turnovers and hit just 5 of their first 15 shots. But the Owls got under control and chipped away at the lead, and ended the half with a 7-0 run to pull within five.

The second half saw another quick Cajun start rebuild their lead to ten points at 51-41, but then the Owls superior execution took over as they went on a 17-2 run. ULL kept battling, and tied the game at 68 with a minute and a half to play. The Owls answered when Jamaal Moore was fouled and sunk both free throws to put the Owls up by two with a minute to play. On the next possession, Moore stole the ball and took it the length of the court to put the Owls up by four and they

Michael Harris put up his 14th double-double with 27 points and 14 rebounds, and Jason McKreith chipped in 20 points as well to lead the Owls.

The Houston Chronicle ran two stories on the game. The game story focuses on the fight, the foul differential, and has some Willis Wilson quotes on the importance of this game to both teams. The more interesting story comes from columnist Dale Robertson who says the win is meaningless if the Owls don't win the WAC Tournament.

Robertson focuses on how the Owls are unlikely to return to NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1970 unless they get the automatic bid by winning the WAC Postseason Tournament March 9-13th. Even though 20 wins looks like a lock for the 18-7 Owls, their two losses two weeks ago to UTEP and Boise State crushed their RPIs and make an at-large bid unlikely (although not impossible).

Rice has five WAC games remaining, but only one of them, a huge game at Hawaii (17-7, 9-4) on February 29th has much hope of helping their RPIs. The other four games including games at cellar dwelling San Jose State (6-18, 1-13) and SMU (10-14, 4-10) and home games Monday against Fresno State(12-12, 8-6), and the Home finale March 4 against Louisiana Tech (13-11, 7-7).

The Owls know they cannot look past anyone, and winning at Hawaii will be very tough. But, if they can finish with a 5-0 run, then a 23-7 Owl team heading into the WAC tournament may merit strong at large consideration. But they gotta win. Here's another article I found summarizing WAC team chances at postseason play.

Just two weeks ago, the Owls were angry when their Bracket Buster game was announced as a pay-per-view only affair, and it affected their performance as they were embarrassed by 40 at UTEP, and played a stinker of a loss against Boise State. They need to ignore what they can't control, and come out fighting again on Monday night. Hopefully, this physical game will be the wakeup shot the Owls needed to pickup their game and get to the Big Dance.

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