HOUSTON -- The Houston Cougars have not fared well in close games this season, losing its last two by a combined seven points.
Houston changed that Saturday, getting several stops late and rallying to hang on for a 54-52 win over the Rice Owls.
TaShawn Thomas had 16 points and 10 rebounds and scored six of Houston's final nine points in the last 2:12 to lead the Cougars.
"I am pleased with our defense," Houston coach James Dickey said. "They only had one player in double-figures. We got stops when we needed to. We had a couple droughts offensively in the first half and one in the second half. The biggest thing for us is if we can make our free throws, it is probably a double-digit victory for us."
Rice hit 10 of 26 from behind the arc but just 4 of 13 from 3-point range in the second half. The Owls shot 30.5 percent from the field as their two-game winning streak came to an end.
"We got off to a great start, and our guys did a good job of tightening up defensively and getting good looks at the basket," Rice coach Ben Braun said. "Early, things were going well for us. The guys followed our game plan and executed. Then, the guys didn't get back in transition defense and missed a few shots, and they got the lead by making some of those transition baskets."
Houston regained the lead on a three-point play by Thomas with 2:12 to go and upped the lead to 49-46 on another Thomas free throw with 1:50 left.
Ramljak missed a 3-pointer with 1:25 to go, and Jherrod Stiggers hit a jumper on the other end with 57 seconds left to open up a five-point lead.
Ramljak nailed a 3-pointer with 38 seconds remaining to cut the lead to 51-49, and Thomas responded with a layup to increase Houston's lead to four with 26 seconds left.
Keith Washington drove for a layup on Rice's ensuing possession, but Thomas blocked his shot with 16 seconds left. Morris stole the inbounds pass and was fouled but missed both free throws with 14 seconds left.
"We got stops, and we got rebounds," Dickey said of Houston's play late in the game. "We made some big shots late. Jaaron had a dish late to TaShawn to put us up four."
Trailing 44-38 with 9 minutes left, the Owls used an 8-1 run to grab a 46-45 lead on a Sean Obi jumper in the paint with 2:56 remaining.
The Cougars raced to a 37-28 lead with 15:50 remaining on a Thomas jumper, capping an 8-1 spurt in which Thomas had four points. Rice went nearly 10 minutes to end the first half and start second half between field goals as the Cougars pulled out to their largest lead.
Rice jumped to a 17-6 lead in the first 7 1/2 minutes of the game, capped by a Ramljak 3-pointer with 12:34 left in the first half. Ramljak scored nine straight points in the stretch, connecting on three 3-pointers.
"I made a couple shots," Ramljak said. "Some of the shots I made were tough shots. We started fast as a team, and then we cooled off."
Houston responded with a 15-3 run to take a 21-20 lead with 5:45 remaining in the opening half on a LeRon Barnes free throw. Barnes had five points in the run.
The Cougars would take a 29-27 lead into halftime following a circus reverse layup by Jimmie Jones with 36 seconds remaining.
"I feel like Rice had more energy than us coming out," Thomas said. "I don't know why, but that's what happened. It took us awhile to wake up and come out and start coming back. I don't know if we have played that hard this season. That slow start had us down."