Thibodeaux shakes shooting slump, seals 76-75 win over Rice
Last season, the Cougars lost a 79-71 heartbreaker in overtime in their Jan. 26 meeting with Rice at Tudor Field House.
Darian Thibodeaux and the Cougars gave fans another dramatic ending on Saturday night, edging the Owls 76-75 on two decisive free throws by the senior with 2.7 seconds left in the game.
Leading 75-74 with 5.2 seconds in the game, Owls’ guard Connor Frizzelle bungled an inbound pass and called a timeout, but Rice had none, resulting in a technical foul.
The play gave the Cougars new life after watching their 13-point second-half lead slip away thanks to a 9-0 Rice run in the final four minutes.
The technical foul sent Thibodeaux to the line for two shots. He made both to seal the victory.
“I had already decided who we were going to put at the free throw line,” head coach James Dickey said.
“We told them, ‘Hey, Tip’s going to make the free throws.’ We said that two or three times, ‘Now we have to defend.’ And our guys did a terrific job.”
In his final regular season game as a Cougar, Thibodeaux scored a career-high 21 points on 6-9 shooting. He also drained five 3-pointers and recorded five rebounds, four assists and three steals. Thibodeaux also managed to hold Frizzelle scoreless.
Thibodeaux’s free throws capped off a comeback for both UH and him personally.
“I couldn’t be happier for Tip,” Dickey said. “He stepped up there and knocked in two big free throws, but he played terrific. He had 21 points in the game. He’s shooting the ball better, he’s playing so much more like himself and I was really happy for him.”
Prior to the Cougars 82-53 blowout of Tulane on Wednesday, when Thibodeaux went 5-12 for 12 points, he had been mired in a 1-23 shooting slump, including 1-14 on three-point attempts, and lost his spot in the starting lineup.
Dickey said that Thibodeaux had been “not even a shadow of himself the last two weeks,” but he has regained his swagger.
“I think that confidence showed when Alandise’s shot got blocked, (Omar) Oraby gets the outlet, Tip steals the outlet pass towards half court, never hesitates, stepped up at the three-point line, nailed it,” Dickey said. “I think that just shows that he’s getting his confidence back. And he knows we have confidence. We kept telling him, ‘We know you’re going to make big shots, big shots.’ Little did we know he’d make the biggest two free throws at the end, but we’re happy for him.
“I hope he continues that into the conference tournament.”
Cougars still have work to do
Despite getting the win, the Cougars inability to score in the last three minutes was a concern.
“We battled,” Dickey said. “We made it hard on ourselves.
“We were not as efficient in those last three minutes as we had been in the first 37, and we continue to harp on playing a full 40 minutes.”
In the second half, the Cougars allowed Rice to shoot 65 percent.
“That’s way too good,” Dickey said. “I thought we did a better job early on them. We got the lead, we got up 11. And we just didn’t do a good job extending the lead.
“We didn’t protect the lead in the last three minutes and we’ll learn from that.”
The Cougars struggled to contain Rice’s big men.
The seven-foot-two center, Oraby, combined with forward Arsalan Kazemi to score 30 points on 11-19 shooting.
Oraby also added 11 rebounds and five blocks in 25 minutes.
Outside of Thibodeaux, the Cougars shared the scoring load with Alandise Harris (16 points) and Jonathan Simmons (12 points) the only other Cougars in double figures, but they received timely 3-pointers from Joseph Young (eight points, five rebounds), J.J. Thompson and Jimmie Jones.
Freshman forward TaShawn Thomas was effective with seven points, seven boards and two blocks, but fouled out getting tangled up with Oraby.
Junior Leon Gibson, who has been the Cougars’ first big off the bench during their recent streak, helped fill in with six points and five rebounds in 18 minutes.
Coming off of his most effective game as the Cougars’ point guard against Tulane, Young didn’t play quite as well in that role against the Owls, according to Dickey.
“We have to get him off of the ball,” Dickey said. “I thought Jimmie came in and did a good job. I even thought J.J. (did well), he came in and hit a big three for us.
“We’re going to have to rotate guys. Joe’s a little bit more comfortable off of the ball, so we have to get Jimmie and Little J playing more in the rotation.”
Dickey said the keys going forward into Wednesday’s match-up with UTEP in the first round of the Conference USA Tournament in Memphis would be toughness and defense.
“It’ll be about us,” Dickey said.
Thibodeaux described the Cougars run this season as a roller coaster.
“It has its good times and bad times,” he said. “But I’m just looking forward and moving on to the tournament.”