Photo credit: Charlotte Athletics
CLT hosts North Texas and Rice
The Charlotte 49ers rebounded off a humbling loss at North Texas two weeks ago with an OT win at home vs Western Kentucky and a road victory at Louisiana Tech. These two wins have put them in position to capture that coveted 5th seed which would have them start the conference tournament in the quarterfinals. Both of these games looked very similar to games that Charlotte would’ve found a way to lose earlier in the season — has the team turned a corner in end game execution? Possibly, or maybe the ball just finally bounced their way at the end. Their schedule is littered with close losses and this can only be a good sign for Sanchez and co. The Western Kentucky game was close throughout besides an early 2nd half run by Charlotte which saw them have their largest lead of the night, ten. But WKU kept in it and if not for a fantastic performance from Aly Khalifa, scoring 24, the 9ers very well could’ve lost this game in OT. Saturday afternoon in Louisiana was a different route to the same destination, a W. Charlotte played their best half of basketball on the road all season making it to half time with a 48-30 lead. That lead very slowly ticked, and with five minutes remaining the Bulldogs had cut the lead to 3. Whose name do the Niners call to put it away though? You guessed it, Aly Khalifa once again. With 22 points Saturday and 24 on Thursday, a very well-deserved Conference USA player of the week was awarded.
Thursday arrives a totally different monster with North Texas. Having just faced them on the road we’ll see what adjustments will be made for the 24-point loss where Charlotte scored just 43 and shot 30% from the field. UNT is the only team in the conference that limits their opponents to less possessions than the 49ers, so a very slow and methodical game should be expected. The Mean Green come in riding an 8-game winning streak which has them in the conversation with FAU as a possible automatic bid come selection Sunday. As it is with most teams at the top of CUSA, North Texas relies a lot on guard play, with Tylor Perry being the leader on offense averaging 17.2 per game. Perry can get it done in many different ways but does shoot the three the 3rd most in the conference behind just Walker of UAB and Olivari of Rice. For comparison, Charlotte does not have a single player in the top 20 of threes attempted in conference. That however all could be changing as the 49ers have shot the ball better from outside and Khalifa has taken 20 of them himself over the last two shooting 50%. He is going to need to do more of that if Charlotte is to pull off the upset Thursday night at Halton. According to ESPN Analytics Charlotte currently has a 51.2% chance of pulling off the upset at home, and Vegas current has Charlotte +3.
Saturday’s late afternoon tip against Rice means a lot when looking at the current CUSA standings. Rice, having already beat Charlotte in Houston, is up just one game and have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the conference, traveling to UAB and Charlotte before returning home to face FAU next week. Climbing the standings is there for Charlotte if they want it enough and continue to play the way they played last week. A slow start to the 2nd half and a questionable call at the end in Houston is why these teams aren’t flipped already. The game at Rice was a heartbreaker for the squad after being down 15 with just under 12 minutes remaining, tying it with 11 seconds left all to lose on free throws. Patterson was outstanding that game shooting 8/11 from the field and finishing with a season high 18 points. To no one’s surprise Rice was led by start guard Quincy Olivari who scored 26 points. The Owls are 2nd in the conference in scoring at just under 79 per game with four plyers averaging double figures, they’re also tops in the conference in field goal percentage at 47.5%. They know how to get their shots and they know how to make them. When you’re that excellent at offense though usually you lack on the opposite side, and Rice is dead last in field goal percentage allowed at 45.9% and 10th in the conference in points allowed at 74.6 points per game. There will be open shots for the 49ers offense to execute on, maybe an opportunity for Brice Williams to build on a strong performance over the weekend and get back to his scoring ways in time for the conference tournament. ESPN Analytics loves the 49ers at home in this matchup giving them an 82.5% chance of victory.
The fans are ready for winning basketball and have been for a very long time. The beginning of the season granted some hope to many and the way conference play kicked-off shut that all down in many ways. Too many single digit losses, not beating the opponents they should and not competing with the better teams in conference. With three of the final four conference games being at home the Niners can continue to build on the two wins from last week. While they sit at 7-9 in conference a .500 record is more than possible before the tournament begins in two weeks. Tickets for both of these games and the season finale against UAB on March 4th can be purchased at the ticket office and online.