Marcus Sasser looked good, scoring 22 points, and top seed Houston crushed local favorite Auburn in the second half for an 81-64 win in Saturday night’s NCAA tournament.
The Cougars (33-3) came down from a 10-point halftime deficit and returned after the break with a chip on their shoulders.
Houston essentially closed the rink, playing with the desperation of a national championship contender unwilling to suffer the same fate as Purdue and Kansas — the No. 1s who have already been sent home.
Led by Tramon Mark with 26 points, Houston advanced to face off against either No. 4 Indiana or No. 5 Miami, who play Sunday at the Sweet 16 in Kansas City, Missouri.
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The Tigers (21-13) were doomed for more than 10½ minutes without a field goal and finished just 4 of 24 from the field in the second half.
Auburn drew a lot of fouls only to fight mightily at the line on 19 of 36. Jaylin Williams and Johni Broome led the Tigers by 14 points each.
Sasser had been dealing with a groin injury for the past week, but that didn’t seem to cause him any problems. As he waved a 3-pointer to push Houston back in front at 46-45, he let out an emphatic yell on his way back onto the court.
He finished 5 of 9 beyond the arc.
Sasser’s only problem was bad problems. The All-American guard and running mate, point guard Jamal Shead, were benched with four fouls each with the game still in doubt.
But Mark kept the Cougars rolling offensively, and the Jarace Walker-led defense simply refused to let Auburn back in the game.
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Houston had 12 blocks, half of which were swept away by Walker. Houston scored the last nine to blast it in the end, with Sasser delivering another key shot from beyond the 3-point strip.
Auburn demolished a 17-4 run in the final 5½ minutes of the first half. Williams scored eight of those points, waving a 3-pointer and also converting a three-pointer play.
Houston missed six of his last eight shots at halftime, his only baskets coming from two layups.
But the Cougars wouldn’t be denied even if the Tigers have an advantage over the home state. Legacy Arena in Birmingham is only about a two-hour drive from its East Alabama campus.
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Auburn: The Tigers ended an inconsistent season in a fitting manner. They last won back-to-back games on January 18 and 21 and finished the season by winning just five of their last 15 games.
Houston: Sasser now has plenty of time to rest his groin, which should give him even more confidence that he won’t have any more problems.
Houston goes to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five years under Kelvin Sampson. The Cougars have never won a national title despite making six appearances in the Final Four.
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