The Rice bench held their collective breath as the ball left the hands of a wide open Kayla Thornton as the end of the game buzzer sounded Thursday in El Paso.
Rice led UTEP 62-59, but the Miners had one last chance and it seemed like no Owls defender was in the same zip code as Thornton. The UTEP forward had made four shots earlier in the game and she looked confident letting the 3-ball fly from the corner.
The shot hit nothing, not the rim nor the backboard. Rice claimed its first road win since before Thanksgiving. The Owls (13-14, 5-9 in Conference USA) also have now earned the team’s first 3-game win streak of 2013.
UTEP (19-8, 7-7) held the lead only once all night and trailed by as many nine at several occasions in the second half.
It looked like Rice may have put the Miners away when Nakachi Maduka scored and was fouled with 2:08 left. She missed the free throw, though Rice still led 59-54.
UTEP countered when Chrishauna Parker followed with her own and-one opportunity. She made the free throw to slice the lead to two. Maduka drove to hoop and scored a lay-up to give Rice a 61-57 lead with 1:09 on clock.
However, UTEP again countered quickly. Anete Steinberga hit a jumper 11 seconds later to cut the lead back to two.
After burning the clock down to 29 seconds, Maduka attempted a jumper. It missed but Jessica Kuster snagged an immense offensive rebound for Rice. The Owls then played keep away and UTEP wasted valuable time before fouling with 9.6 seconds to go.
Megan Shafter hit one of two fouls shots, before Thornton’s last-chance 3 was an air ball.
Maduka led Rice with 18 points and she contributed six rebounds. Kuster nearly had a double-double with 13 points and nine rebounds.
As a team Rice shot 37 percent from the floor and missed seven of 17 free throws. The Owls defense helped force 20 UTEP turnovers, which Rice converted into 18 points.
Parker led UTEP with 17 points and 14 boards. It’s the second year in a row the Miners lost to Rice at home. Last year’s 52-48 Rice win was UTEP’s only loss during C-USA play.
Rice will stay in Houston for its last two regular season games, playing at Houston (12-14) Sunday and hosting SMU (20-6) March 7.
Following this Thursday’s games, Rice and Southern Miss are tied for 10th in the conference standings. Central Florida and Houston are one game ahead in the standings with 6-8 conference records.