NEW ORLEANS — Tulane’s basketball program is not in a position to take Conference USA wins for granted.
After consecutive last-place finishes under coach Ed Conroy, every league victory is relished, even when Tulane’s play is far from flawless. The Green Wave’s 72-64 win over Rice on Saturday afternoon at Devlin Fieldhouse illustrated the point precisely.
“A win is a win,” Tulane point guard Ricky Tarrant said. “We didn’t play well defensively, but we did the things we needed to do to win the game, and we’ll take it.”
While Tulane (14-6, 2-3 C-USA) struggled for large portions of the game to find its footing against the scuffling Owls (4-15, 0-5), it used its significant size advantage in the post to pound its way to a second half surge.
A 32-32 halftime tie broke in favor of the Green Wave in the final 20 minutes thanks largely to converting 19 of 30 second-half free-throw attempts, as Tulane drove into the lane repeatedly, drawing contact from an undersized Rice frontline that topped out at 6-foot-7.
Conroy said it was a concerted effort to turn the offense’s focus to the interior after halftime, after attempting 15 3-pointers and just four free throws in the first half.
While Tulane found clean looks from beyond the arc against a scrambling Owls’ defense, shots weren’t falling with any consistency, allowing Rice to dictate the game’s pace.
“We reversed the ball and tried to share it in the first half, but we stopped really working hard to get it inside,” Conroy said. “We got it back inside in the second half, and our defensive rebounding triggered our transition, which allowed us to get out on the break, get numbers and put them in position where they were going to foul.”
Tarrant and forward Josh Davis benefitted the most, shooting 18 free throws in the second half.
Davis once again shined, finishing with a team-high 22 points and nine rebounds, shooting 8-of-10 from the field.
However, Conroy admitted his disappointment in the Wave’s defense.
Rice entered the game as C-USA’s lowest scoring offense averaging 59.6 points per game, but found a bevy of open looks across the floor, knocking down 44 percent of its field-goal attempts.
The Owls were led by forward Seth Gearhart, who converted eight of his 12 shots, including 4-of-6 on 3-pointers, en route to his game-high 23 points.
It was an unexpected explosion from Gearhart, who entered the afternoon averaging 6.1 points per game with a previous career high of 15, notched in a win over UNO earlier this year.
“Coach said we weren’t playing physical,” Tarrant said. “We were letting (Gearhart) get too much space and he was able to make a lot of open shots.”
It was an example of a confused Tulane defense that struggled to contain Rice’s perimeter-oriented attack and forced several of the Wave’s post players to defend positions they were unaccustomed to.
“They are a unique team, and I give them credit,” Conroy said. “They have five guys out there behind the 3-point line a lot of times.
“And like I said, I talked to our guys about how to defend that line, and if they make one or two not to get spooked and lose your principles. And I think when you saw them break for a free layup, we were definitely losing our principles and getting too concerned about the line.”
But the shaky half-court defense didn’t slow Tulane’s effort, according to Conroy.
Tulane dominated the boards, overwhelming Rice with a 38-21 advantage, including 10-1 on the offensive glass, which led to 12 second-chance points.
It will be a critical factor as Tulane tries to win consecutive conference game for the first time since Jan. 8, 2011, when it hosts Central Florida on Wednesday night at Devlin Fieldhouse.
“To me there is no more proof of doing what we need to do (than getting consecutive conference wins),” Conroy said. “We need to show we can come back and get another one, and it’s about time we show that consistency individually and as a team.”