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FIU closes strong to down Rice 71-60 in C-USA opener

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Playing smart and aggressive basketball kept Rice in Thursday’s Conference USA opener for 38 minutes against Florida International.

But the Owls downfall was an inability to stop the Panthers from getting to the rim.

Tymell Murphy was the main culprit, scoring 17 points in the last 10 minutes to help FIU win its first ever C-USA game. Murphy ended with 22 points and 15 rebounds in the Golden Panthers 71-60 win Thursday at Tudor Fieldhouse in Houston.

“We have got to do a better job of not giving up that kind of penetration,” said Rice coach Ben Braun. “When we closed down the lane, we made them struggle to take some tougher shots. But we allowed them to get to the rim far too many times in the second half, whether it was man or zone.”

A telling example occurred with about 2 minutes left in the game. FIU led 63-60 at the time. The Owls (5-9, 0-1) played strong defense and forced a guarded 3-point attempt by Dennis Mavin. It missed, but the ball was tipped out, and Murphy got the rebound.

FIU (9-7, 1-0) burned 20 seconds off the clock before Murphy drove the ball and scored a layup near the rim.

“We had a chance to secure the ball,” Braun said. “If we’d had done that, we would have had the chance to tie it when we come back the other way.”

Braun said it was not just the primary defender who was responsibility for Murphy.

“It‘s our help side defenders and guys rotating and making sure they have good vision on the ball,” he said. “I thought we lost our vision a couple of times on key points late.”

Rice was 9 of 16 from the line, including a pair of missed free throws late by Seth Gearhart, who averages nearly 80 percent from the charity stripe.

“We had opportunities, but it slipped out of our hands,” said Austin Ramljak, who led Rice with 14 points. “We didn’t make enough plays to win the game.”

Ramljak hit three 3-points shots early as Rice stuck to shooting behind the arc. In fact, the first 10 shots Rice took were all 3-pointers.

“In the beginning I got a couple of good looks,” Ramljak said. “My teammates found me at opportunistic times. Then FIU tightened up after the first 10 minutes, so I started driving a little bit more.”

Rice attacked the rim more in the second half and were aggressive on the boards. The team had 10 second-chance points. They also scored 22 points off the bench.

Andrew Drone was 4 of 6 from the field and four of his five rebounds were on the offensive end. Fellow freshman Drew Bender added 8 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocks off the bench.

“I thought Drew and Andrew gave us solid performances,” Braun said. “Those guys have been playing really well. They played 18 and 16, and their time will only go up the way they are playing. They gave us quite a lift for being freshmen in their first league games.”

A Max Guercy 3-pointer gave Rice a 56-55 lead with 6:43 to go. Murphy answered with a driving bucket to put FIU back up. There were 16 lead changes in the game.

After a Rakeem Buckles free throw and a Rice turnover, Murphy converted a 3-point play when he was fouled on another hard drive to the bucket.

Ramljak missed a 3-pointer, but the Panthers turned the ball over with 4:10 left. Gearhart was then fouled and hit two free throws to make it a 61-58 game.

After another Murphy score, Sean Obi kept in a one-possession game when he rebounded Keith Washington’s miss and went back up for the score. That bucket with 3:14 left was the last points Rice would score.

Rice will host Florida Atlantic at 7 p.m. Saturday.

“We have an opportunity on Saturday to fight for a split,” he said. “Make no mistake about it, FIU has some talented players. But we’ve got some guys that are talented, too. They need to step up.”

Game Notes

  • Rice has lost 4 straight games. The win broke a 3-game losing streak for FIU.
  • This was the first meeting between the two teams. Rice also has never play Florida Atlantic.
  • Rice committed a season-low 6 turnovers in the game.
  • Rice has now lost 7 straight conference openers.
  • Sean Obi led Rice in rebounding for the 12th time this season. He had 8 rebounds to go along with 7 points.

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