Friday, December 30, 2016

ODU's Simms looks to heat up (finally) at Rice

For the past three years, Old Dominion fans have been able to count on Jennie Simms getting hers just about everywhere.

That is, except at Rice's Tudor Fieldhouse, where Simms and the Lady Monarchs will open Conference USA play Friday at 6 p.m.

Last year at Rice, Simms finished with just seven points on 3-of-17 shooting in 39 minutes as the Owls rolled to a 68-46 victory. Two years ago, the Lady Monarchs prevailed in Houston 62-55. But the Fieldhouse foiled Simms again, as she made only one of five shots and finished with nine points in 32 minutes.

In 76 career games at Old Dominion, Simms has failed to score in double figures just five times. Tudor Fieldhouse is the only place where that's happened twice. Or to put it another way, in two career games at Rice, Simms is averaging 8.0 points. In 74 career games everywhere else, she's averaging 21.3 points.

If Rice simply had Simms' number, this would make more sense. But Simms is averaging 20.0 ppg against the Owls in three meetings at other venues (twice at the Constant Center, once at UAB in the 2015 Conference USA Tournament).

She's just yet to flourish at Rice's Fieldhouse.

So far.

But even if the nation's second-leading scorer (25.0 ppg) breaks out of her Fieldhouse funk, the Lady Monarchs should expect a spirited team response from the improved Owls. After finishing 9-22 a year ago, Rice has already matched last year's win total (9-2) and is off to the program's best start since the 1988-89 team went 10-1. The Owls are also 5-0 at home and are riding a six-game winning streak.

Now, the schedule hasn't exactly been brutal - the victims in Rice's six-game winning streak include one NAIA school and five teams that have gone a combined 7-39 against Division I foes. Still, given how much the Owls have struggled in recent years, this year's start seems like a significant step forward.

The Lady Monarchs (5-6), meanwhile, have dropped three straight and have gone 0-5 in road/neutral site games. To be fair, three of those losses were to teams currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

Still, with Simms in top form and several other veterans on hand, these 2016-17 Lady Monarchs seemed to have the program's best shot in years at picking off a team or two at that level. They couldn't pull one off, though, and remain without a victory over a ranked team since 2008, when the Lady Monarchs topped No. 16 Virginia 78-70 at the Constant Center.

Conference USA teams in general struggled to post marquee results, as the league's teams went just 1-11 against AP Top 25 opponents in November and December. The lone victory came on Nov. 19 when Western Kentucky downed then-No. 23 Indiana 85-74. The Hooisers have since slipped out of the rankings.

C-USA teams went 5-31 against Power 5 conference opponents.

The conference team that put together the strongest non-conference resume is probably Charlotte (8-3), which has wins over Wisconsin, Pittsburgh, Duquesne and East Carolina and has an RPI of 48, by far the best among league teams. The 49ers will take a five-game winning streak into its C-USA opener Friday at North Texas.

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