Sports reporters from time to time will ask coaches and players about moral victories, and almost always their reply is there’s no such thing.
For an undermanned, inexperienced Rice’s men’s basketball, it can be argued the Owls got a pair of moral victories in the last four days in Orlando and New Orleans. Rice loss to Central Florida 78-67 Wednesday and Tulane 73-66 Saturday.
Rice is still winless in Conference USA at 0-5 and its 4-15 record speaks for itself. But for a team that lost the vast majority of talent to preseason transfers, they are giving winning opponents a tussle.
“I credit Rice for coming out firing and knocking down six of their 12 three-pointers in the first half,” Tulane coach Ed Conroy said in a news release after Saturday’s game. “They average 10 (three-pointers) a game and really put it on us in the first half.”
Rice and Tulane (14-6, 2-3) were tied at 32 after 20 minutes of basketball. Sophomore forward Seth Gearhart scored 13 of those points, on his way to a career high 24. The Wilsonville, Ore. native also added seven rebounds.
“I was pleased with how Seth played today,” Rice coach Ben Braun said. “He was confident and his shooting really helped spread the floor for us.”
A Gearhart 3-point play gave Rice a 35-32 lead early in the second half. Tulane then scored 18 of the game’s next 22 points, before Gearhart swished a 3-pointer. At that point Tulane led 40-32, and the Green Wave’s lead would not drop below six again.
The Owls made one last ditch effort late. A pair of Julian DeBose free throws with 2:27 left made it a 65-59 game. But Kendall Timmons scored a layup for the Green Wave and Josh Davis swatted away a shot by Rice’s Max Guercy. Ricky Tarrant was fouled and he hit both to put the lead back up to 10.
Tulane went to the line 34 times in the game as all but one of Rice starters committed four fouls. In comparison, Rice went to the line 16 times and only missed one free throw.
Davis led Tulane with 22 points and nine rebounds, while Tarrant added 16. Guercy, DeBose and Tamir Jackson all scored in double figures for Rice.
“Tulane wanted to take the ball out of Tamir’s hands and they did that well,” Braun said. “He was able to find open players several times, but unfortunately they didn’t knock down all of their shots. Our guys are shooting with confidence though.”
The Owls shot 50 percent from the field in the first half, though the percentage dipped to 39 in the second half. Rice was 1 for 12 on second half 3-point attempts.
Conroy said he challenged the Tulane players at halftime to get to the free-throw line and defend the three-point line much better.
“In the second half, Rice goes 1-for-12 from behind the arc and we got to the line 30 times,” he said. “I thought our guys did a great job of executing what we asked.”
Rice and Central Florida (14-5, 5-1) ironically also were tied at 32 at halftime of Wednesday‘s game. UCF built a 12-point lead in the second half, but Rice was able to chop it to three before the Knights put it away. Four Owls scored in double figures, led by Jackson’s 15.
Rice now heads home to attempt to earn its first conference win. They take on cross-town rival Houston (13-6, 2-4) at 7 p.m. Wednesday.