HOUSTON - University of Houston senior guard Darian Thibodeaux drained two free throws with 2.1 seconds remaining to lift the Cougars to a wild 76-75 win in the regular-season finale against Conference USA rival Rice at Tudor Fieldhouse.
Thibodeaux's free throws capped an improbable comeback for the Cougars in the final six seconds. Rice gained the upper hand when Arsalan Kazemi drained a layup, was fouled and hit the free throw to give the Owls a 75-73 lead with just 16 seconds to go in the contest.
Following a Rice timeout, junior guard Jonathon Simmons worked the clock down and drove the ball hard to the basket before being fouled with just 5.2 seconds remaining. However, the Houston native and Smiley High product missed his first free throw attempt.
Simmons recovered to sink his second free throw to pull the Cougars to within 75-74. On the ensuing inbounds play, Rice guard Connor Frizzelle received the pass but slipped to the floor. As he fell to the ground, officials ruled that the senior called timeout in the ensuing scuffle for the ball though the Owls had none remaining.
Rice was charged with the technical foul, and Thibodeaux stepped to the line with the Cougars trailing by a point and only 2.1 seconds remaining on the clock. The lone senior on the 2011-12 team, Thibodeaux calmly converted both attempts to give the Cougars the lead for good.
The Dallas native led all players with a career-high 21 points on 6-of-9 shooting, including a 5-of-8 performance from the 3-point line. Thibodeaux also added five rebounds, four assists and three steals while playing 32 minutes to help the Cougars avenge an earlier loss to the Owls in Hofheinz Pavilion.
He became the fifth different Cougar player to score at least 20 points in a game, joining Simmons, redshirt freshman guard Joseph Young, sophomore forward Alandise Harris and junior forward Kirk Van Slyke.
Houston built a double-digit lead for much of the second half and seemed to have the game well in hand when Thibodeaux nailed a 3-pointer for a 71-62 Houston lead with 5:17 remaining. However, the Owls used a 13-0 run during the next five minutes to take the lead on Kazemi's old-fashioned 3-point play with 16 seconds left.
With the win, the Cougars won for the fourth time in their last five games and improved to 15-14 overall. The Cougars tied with UTEP for eighth in the final league standings and will play the Miners as the No. 9 seed in next week's Conference USA Championship at FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn.
Rice dropped to 17-14 overall and finished with an 8-8 mark in C-USA play. The Owls will play as the No. 7 seed at the C-USA Championship.
Harris finished with 16 point and tied with freshman forward TaShawn Thomas for team-high honors with seven rebounds. Simmons added 12 points and dished out a game-high eight assists with two steals to lead the Cougars.
Kazemi led the Owls with 19 points, while Omar Oraby came off the bench to post 11 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Lucas Kuipers added 12 points with a pair of 3-pointers for the Owls.
The Cougars open play at the Conference USA Championship when they meet No. 8 seed UTEP at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, in the First Round at FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn.
The two teams split the regular-season series with each team winning on its home court. UTEP claimed a 70-50 win in El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 7, while the Cougars enjoyed an 81-76 win in overtime inside Hofheinz Pavilion on Jan. 28.
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