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No. 4 seed locked up by 49ers win over Rice

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Charlotte torched the nets in the first half better than any time this season before hanging on to defeat Rice, 68-63, Thursday night inside Halton Arena to clinch the No. 4 seed for the upcoming Conference USA Championships. By virtue of the No. 4 position, the 49ers will begin tournament play in the quarterfinal round.

Freshman Laia Raventós made a strong case for inclusion on the All-Conference USA Freshman Team, turning in her second career double-double with career high numbers for rebounds (12) and assists (11). It’s her second time with double-figure assists, joining the 10 she dished versus Mercer Nov. 28 at the GSU Thanksgiving Classic and her first double-digit effort on the glass, surpassing the seven she corralled against Marshall Feb. 18. Her 11 defensive caroms are tied for seventh in Halton Arena history.

Junior Ciara Gregory came off the bench to hit 4-of-7 from behind the arc on her way to a team-high 14 points. It’s her most points since netting 20 against FIU Jan. 28.

Senior Kira Gordon added 13 points, while Conference USA Freshman of the Year candidate Grace Hunter finished just shy of her seventh double-double with 11 points and nine rebounds, the fifth time this season she needed one more board to reach the mark.

Junior Lefty Webster contributed 11 points and eight rebounds, rounding out the quartet of double-figure scorers for Charlotte (18-10, 11-6 C-USA) and helping the team edge the Owls on the glass, 44-to-43.

Rice (8-20, 7-10 C-USA) received a game-best 16 points from Jasmine Goodwine, along with a double-double of 15 points and 11 rebounds by Shani Rainey. Maya Hawkins added 14 points and Alyssa Lang grabbed 15 boards for the visitors.

The Niners came out of the gates red-hot, making 8-of-10 through the first 10 minutes. Gordon tallied the opening five points, including a 3-pointer at 8:05, before Rainey answered with 6:56 remaining with her own triple. Gregory then started to heat up, burying back-to-back trifectas to stretch the margin to four, 11-7, with 4:42 left. Gordon added a jumper and Gregory converted a mid-range jumper off her own steal and the lead became eight, 15-7, on a 10-0 run. Lang finally ended the Rice drought with a layup on the ensuing possession but the ball kept falling for the 49ers. They made their final two attempts from the floor, including a 3-pointer from sophomore Griffin Dempsey with 27 seconds to go, before senior Alexis Alexander blocked a Rainey shot just ahead of the horn and Charlotte held a 20-12 advantage through the period.

The nets remained friendly on the 49ers’ end during the next 10-minute frame, as they hit 8-of-12. The Niners quickly built their edge to 13, 25-12, in the first minute behind a Gordon layup and another triple from Dempsey. Following a Hawkins layup, a 3-pointer by Gregory and an old-fashioned three-point play by Raventós grew the margin to 17, 31-14, at the 6:40 mark. The Owls then started to chip away at the deficit, as recently inserted Gabrielle Stanton posted five-straight points before consecutive layups from Goodwine and Rainey trimmed it back to a dozen, 35-23, with 4:21 left. Charlotte managed only four points the rest of the way, all from Webster, while Rice closed the half with seven points on its side, to enter the intermission only down nine, 39-30.

A Rainey old-fashioned three-point play started the second-half scoring and the Owls kept pushing forward, trimming the gap to three, 41-38, on a Wendy Knight 3-pointer and Hawkins steal and layup, forcing the Niners to burn a timeout. After the break, Hunter’s layup ended any Charlotte lull before Rice mounted a 7-0 surge to take a 45-43 lead on two Rainey free throws at the 4:54 mark. Gordon knotted the scoring with a layup but another 6-1 run, all coming on triples from Lauren Grigsby, provided the Owls with a five-point edge, 51-46, with 2:35 left. The 49ers then made their spurt, tallying the final eight points of the stanza, starting with a Gregory triple, to reclaim the lead, 54-51, entering the last 10 minutes.

Neither team could find the back of the net early in the frame, as it was not until Webster’s layup at 6:46 that the scoreboard was illuminated again. Charlotte kept the Owls off the board until a Goodwine layup at the 3:46 mark, keeping the difference at five, 58-53. Back-to-back layups from Hunter, the first on a tough pass inside from Raventós, swelled the margin back to eight, 62-54, with 2:39 to play. Rice kept up the aggressiveness on the offensive end, twice pulling within three, the last on a Goodwin layup with only 59 seconds remaining, but it could get no closer before being forced to foul the Niners down the stretch.

Charlotte will cap the regular-season home slate with a 7 p.m. Saturday contest against North Texas. The 49ers will honor their two seniors, Alexander and Gordon, with a ceremony after the game concludes.

-- Charlotte shot a season-best 72.7 percent (16-of-22) during the first half, topping the 64.0 percent (16-of-25) against Southern Miss Jan. 7.
-- The 49ers clinched the No. 4 seed and double-bye in the upcoming Conference USA Championships, which begin March 8 in Birmingham, Alabama, with Thursday’s win.
-- The No. 4 seed is the best for the Niners as a Conference USA member since they won the regular-season title and held the No. 1 seed in the 2003 tournament.
-- Freshman Laia Raventós tallied her second career double-double with career bests of 12 rebounds and 11 assists.
-- Her 12 boards included 11 on the defensive end, tying for the seventh most in Halton Arena history.
-- Her 11 assists are tied for second best during the program’s Halton Arena era (1996-97 to present), while also ranking as the ninth best in any game in school history.
-- She is the second player, joining Ny Hammonds who did it three times, to hand out at least 11 assists under head coach Cara Consuegra (2012-present) in a single game.
-- Consuegra won game No. 90 of her career, only the third coach in program history to reach the milestone.
-- Charlotte improved to 11-2 inside Halton Arena this year, the most wins in the building since a 14-4 mark in 2012-13.
-- The 22 bench points for the 49ers are the most since 30 against FIU Jan. 28.

Charlotte Postgame Press Conference
Head Coach Cara Conseugra

Opening Statement
Well, obviously not really the way we wanted to win that game. It was ugly. We made it a lot more difficult than it needed to be but I am still happy that my team was still able to close it out and get that victory. I told the kids coming into this week ‘our tournament time is now’. Everybody that we are playing from here on out is fighting for something and there is going to be no easy games and nothing is going to be handed to us. We came out and started really strong offensively hit some great shots. [It was] awesome to have Ciara (Gregory) in there knocking down some 3-pointers which she hadn’t done for a while and Griffin Dempsey came in and knocked down a couple. Then, I thought we got a little bit complacent and I told the team that I hadn’t seen that out of them in a while. We haven’t been complacent and we haven’t done that and we did that today. [We] gave Rice a chance to get back in the game by turning the ball over and making some breakdowns defensively and in the second half, it became a battle. I tell you what, I will take my team into battle any day and every day these kids fight even when it’s not pretty. And they put themselves in the situations. We easily, in the third quarter when we got down five, we could’ve folded. We were coming off a road trip where our kids are tired and beat up. We came out of that game with injuries but they didn’t make excuses. They found a way to win, and defensively in the fourth quarter, if we don’t play defense like that, we don’t win the game. Obviously the rebounding is frustrating. It wouldn’t have been that difficult had we finished the box outs. I thought our defense down the stretch was tremendous and that’s what won us the game.

On turnovers
I wasn’t happy and they [the players] knew it too, so did Rice as well. I think the thing about turnovers for us, a lot of our turnovers are unforced, which is really frustrating. I want to have a balance as a coach because I want us to play fast and want them to feel confident in transition. In order to do that, I have to be ok with some turnovers but I just thought we were incredibly sloppy and taking chances we didn’t need to take. We weren’t focused on the game plan. We knew any time that we got the ball in the paint that Rice was going to collapse everybody in the paint, and we turned the ball over when we knew they were doing that when we knew it was coming. We talked a lot about it at halftime and our kids came out in the second half and fixed it.

On play of Laia Raventós
Absolutely the thing about Laia is whatever we need her to do to win the game, she’s willing to do. Some nights it’s scoring, tonight that wasn’t it for her. Twelve rebounds are tremendous; 11 assists is a career high for her. Just running the offense and sharing the ball pushing the pace for us and getting us some really easy things by pushing our transition when we were struggling to score. Those kind of things were huge for us to secure this win.

On getting the double-bye
It’s crucial for our team. We have aspirations to go to Birmingham and compete really well in it, and without the double-bye, it would be difficult just because of our depth. We knew it was important for us. We have been talking about it for about three weeks and told our girls that we were in control of our own destiny. And every time we have put the truth out there, we haven’t shied away from it. We have taken the challenge.

Senior Kira Gordon

On fourth quarter defense
We just emphasized finishing out the fourth quarter. [It] was pretty tough but we just kept fighting through, like coach said, just finishing with a box out and trying to keep them off the boards.

On Saturday being final home regular-season game
It’s pretty bittersweet. It came pretty quick. I’m happy and excited one more time to be inside Halton Arena.