The 2011-12 men's basketball season has been nothing if not frustrating for fans of the Houston Cougars. But as the regular season ends and gives way to the Conference USA tournament, one thing is certain: UH finally has some momentum in their favor, after a 76-75 win over their crosstown rivals.
In the regular season finale for both Houston and Rice at Tudor Fieldhouse, Houston took some big leads early in the second half, but couldn't hold on to them as the clock wound down. The Owls finally broke through and took the lead with 16 seconds remaining, as Dylan Ennis found Arsalan Kazemi coming off of a screen down low for a bucket, plus the foul. The three-point play gave Rice a 75-73 lead.
On the ensuing possession, Houston's Jonathon Simmons was fouled going to the basket with under 6 seconds left, but he missed the first free throw. After the second free throw went in to cut the lead to one, Rice struggled to get the ball in bounds. The ball was knocked loose on the pass, with Rice recovering the ball on the ground. But Connor Frizzelle panicked and called for a timeout, even though the Owls had already used all of their timeouts. The play was called a technical foul on Rice, giving the Cougars a chance to take the lead.
But the game was far from over. In addition to Simmons' miss from the charity stripe with the game on the line, freshman Joseph Young had also missed the front end of a one-and-one in the final minute. So head coach James Dickey called on his lone senior, Darian Thibodeaux, to shoot the technical shots. The Rice crowd just about blew the roof off the building, but was unable to affect Thibodeaux, who calmly sank both shots.
Rice had just over two seconds left to try and sink a winner, but their full-court pass was batted away. A last-second toss that may or may not have beaten the buzzer harmlessly missed, regardless.
Ironically, the game ended up having no tangible benefit to Houston, who was heading to the Conference USA tournament in Memphis as the 9-seed, regardless of the outcome. But the win should prove to be a huge confidence booster for the team, as the Cougars snapped a three-game losing streak to Rice, picked up their fourth win in the last five games, and grabbed their first true road win of the season. (Although considering that Houston beat the Arkansas Razorbacks, in Little Rock, that's a technicality.)
Houston is certainly a team with plenty of limitations. They don't have a true point guard or center, they're inexperienced, they struggle offensively in the half-court, and their defensive focus often leaves something to be desired. But they're an athletic group that's finally starting to play together as a team heading to the conference tournament, and they're finally giving their fans a reason to watch.
Houston finishes the regular season with a 14-14 record (7-9 C-USA), and will face 8-seed UTEP in the opening round of the conference tournament. The winner will move on to face host Memphis.
The Owls head to Memphis with a 14-14 overall record, and an 8-8 mark in conference play. They will be the 7-seed, and face East Carolina (10-15, 5-11) in the opening round. The winner will face 2-seed Southern Miss in the second round.