March Madness 2023: Houston is persevering despite setbacks, now halfway to his hometown’s Final Four

Marcus Sasser of the Houston Cougars speaks with a coach during the first half against the Auburn Tigers March 18. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

It didn’t matter that Houston had to play a virtual away game. Or that two of the Cougars’ best players were hampered by injuries and foul problems.

Kelvin Sampson’s tough, tenacious team refused to become the latest victim of the excitement in this year’s unpredictable NCAA men’s tournament.

With a 10-point deficit early in the second half, seeded up front Houston ramped up his efforts defensively and methodically squeezed life out of Auburn. The ninth-seeded Tigers managed just four baskets in the second half as the Cougars pounded their way to an 81-64 comeback win and a berth in a fourth straight Sweet 16.

Other Houston players picked up the gap with first-team All-American Marcus Sasser struggling with a lingering groin injury and point guard Jamal Shead coping with a wobbly knee. Junior guard Tramon Mark had a career-high 26 points, almost triple his season average. Award-winning freshman Jarace Walker and fellow forward J’Wan Roberts anchored the Cougars’ central defense and combined for 11 of their team’s 12 blocked shots.

Had Houston joined Purdue and Kansas as the top seeded angry victim, it would have been the first time in NCAA tournament history that three No. 1 seedlings did not advance to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. The Cougars instead advanced within two wins of a Final Four appearance in their hometown and set up a tempting Sweet 16 matchup with either Indiana or Miami.

Houston’s route to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament was more treacherous than other top seeds. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee gave Auburn a chance to play in Birmingham, near his home, and turned the top-seeded Cougars’ second-round match into a true away game.

When asked Friday if he expected a 90% crowd for Auburn, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson chuckled and said, “90%? Hoping for 90.” Later in his press conference, Sampson took the opportunity to enlist the support of all the Alabama fans who were in Legacy Arena to watch the Crimson Tide take on Maryland in Saturday’s doubleheader nightcap .

“We need help,” Sampson said with a smile. “Rolling tide!”

Judging by the roar after every Auburn basket on Friday, Sampson’s shot didn’t bring Houston many new supporters. The crowd at Legacy Arena erupted as the halftime buzzer rang out as Auburn pressured Marcus Sasser into an off-balance airball to maintain a 10-point lead.

Houston came out of the half with renewed energy and methodically fought back to lead with a 25-10 run. Swarming defense held Auburn to just a field goal in the first 12 minutes of the second half, and Mark delivered some much-needed offense while Sasser and Shead struggled with foul troubles.

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