rice 79, middle tennessee state 68 Late scoring spree provides a winning lift
Rice used a four-minute run of 15 unanswered points late in the second half to catapult past Middle Tennessee State in the game as well as in the Conference USA standings Thursday night, winning 79-68 at Tudor Fieldhouse.
The Owls’ scoring run started at the 7:34 mark when freshman Trey Murphy III knocked down a 3-pointer to tie a personal high with his fourth of the game.
It ended on a pair of Ako Adams free throws with 3:34 remaining.
“The guys really, really wanted to dig in, and it was really important for them tonight,” Rice coach Scott Pera. “Tonight they wanted to prove that (their last two losses) were a fluke.”
Rice (8-12, 3-4 C-USA) trailed by four points at halftime but contained Middle Tennessee through suffocating defense and strong rebounding in the second half.
The Owls outrebounded the Blue Raiders by eight and held them to 40-percent shooting from the floor in the half. On the game, Rice forced Middle Tennessee (5-15, 2-5) into more turnovers than assists (13-11).
The Owls’ bench scoring was more than double that of the Blue Raiders (28-12).
“The last eight minutes of the game we forced them into really tough shots,” Murphy said. “It’s just a credit to the team defense. (Pera) always tells us to guard as one. We’re not all on an island, we’re all in a fist.”
The Owls’ leading scorer for the season is freshman Chris Mullins. Their top two scorers on Thursday were also freshmen (Mullins and Murphy).
Despite so many young contributors, Rice has proven to be more collectively proactive than a year ago.
On Thursday, the Owls put it on display; diving for loose balls to retain possession or making the extra pass to set a teammate up for an open 3-pointer as the shot clock ticked down.
After salvaging possession five minutes into the second half, Adams maneuvered the ball to Mullins as the shot clock ticked below five seconds. Mullins calmly gathered his shot and sank a 3-pointer to tie the game for the first time since the four-minute mark in the first half.
Rice would maintain that lead throughout the rest of the game — only trailing by one point for 15 seconds later in the half.
“This was a learning experience for us because the last two games in the last three minutes of the game we—I’m not going to say we crumbled, but a lot of things didn’t happen,” Murphy said of the Owls’ back-to-back buzzer-beating losses entering Thursday’s game.
“Everybody was hurt from those last two games. We knew that we had to play harder and give it for 40 minutes.”
The win is Rice’s third straight at home for the first time since the 2015-16 season.
Mullins led the team with 19 points (and three steals) and Murphy tied a career-high with 18 points.
“All you can do from those two games is learn,” Pera said.
“Tonight we learned and we applied it.”