Homegrown talent has helped Rice ascend into the Top 25

NEW YORK (AP) — Tina Langley has turned the Rice women’s basketball team into a Top 25 program using homegrown talent.

More than half the roster is from Texas and many players grew up within 30 minutes of the university, playing together in high school or on club teams.

“It’s nice to represent Houston in that manner,” said star Erica Ogwumike. “It is a factor that is pretty big in having such a successful program. It helps us a lot. There’s so much support at each game. It makes all of us feel at home here.”

Ogwumike also has the comfort of having older sister Olivia on the team as well. The pair transferred to Rice after playing at Pepperdine.

Joining the Ogwumike sisters this year is 6-foot-9 center Nancy Mulkey, who played with Erica on a state championship team in 2015. She transferred in from Oklahoma and missed the first eight games while recovering from an injury. She’s averaging 12.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.8 blocks this season. Other local players include senior Nicole Iademarco, who is third on the team in scoring, and Lauren Grigsby, who averages 7.8 points.

Buoyed by their Texas group, the Owls (22-3) have won 15 straight games — tied with Baylor for the longest winning streak in the country after No. 2 Oregon lost Monday night. Rice earned the first ranking in school history, entering the poll at No. 25.

“It’s awesome, it’s surreal,” Erica Ogwumike said of being ranked. “It hasn’t fully hit me yet. … Everyone wants to leave their mark and it’s neat to see when we bought into the process things became possible and we started seeing results.”

With the appearance in the poll, the Ogwumike sisters now have something in common with older siblings Chiney and Nneka, who starred at Stanford and now play in the WNBA. All four have been ranked at some point during their college basketball careers — which is believed to be the first time that four sisters have accomplished that feat.

“If that’s the case they might have to make a movie or something,” the youngest Ogwumike sister said laughing. “My sisters would see the poignancy in that. They did so much at Stanford. They are my role models.”

Chiney was quick to point out her younger siblings’ accomplishments in building a program from scratch. Stanford was well established as a women’s basketball power before the two older sisters arrived.

Now Erica Ogwumike, who is averaging a team-best 16.3 points and 11 rebounds, hopes to achieve something else that her older sisters did: reach the NCAA Tournament. Rice hasn’t been there since 2005.

It’s been a steady climb for the Owls since Langley took over in 2015 after spending seven years at Maryland as an assistant — including five as associate head coach. She wanted to build a program that had the opportunity to play for postseason titles every year, and the Owls have been approaching that goal. In 2015-16, they finished 10th in the conference before winning one game in the league’s postseason tournament. The next season they won the Women’s Basketball Invitational postseason tournament, the first postseason title for the Owls.

Last season they played in the WNIT. Rice was 9-21 the season before Langley took over.

“Four years ago when I met (athletic director) Joe Karlgaard, it was clear we had a shared vision for what Rice women’s basketball could become, and that was a nationally competitive program,” Langley said. “We are so grateful to all the young women and staff who believed and committed to taking this program to that level. With that being said, this is not our goal.

“Over the last four years, our focus has been on growth. It is one of our core values and has been our trademark for who we are and how we prepare. Our focus right now is on our next opponent.”

Rice’s first game as a ranked team is Saturday when it visits North Texas.