It didn’t matter that Houston had to play a virtual road game. Or that two of the Cougars’ best players were hampered by injuries and foul trouble.
Kelvin Sampson’s tough, tenacious team refused to become the latest upset victim in this year’s unpredictable NCAA Men’s Tournament.
Trailing by 10 points as the second half began, top-seeded Houston responded to a challenge from its coach to turn up the defensive effort. The Cougars took the lead and methodically squeezed the life out of ninth-seeded Auburn en route to an 81-64 comeback victory and a berth in a fourth straight Sweet 16.
Auburn failed to score a single basket in a 10-minute stretch in the second half and managed just four total field goals after halftime. Prized Houston freshman Jarace Walker and fellow forward J’Wan Roberts anchored the Cougars’ interior defense, combining for 11 of the team’s 12 blocked shots.
With first-team All-American Marcus Sasser battling a lingering groin injury and point guard Jamal Shead dealing with a knee, junior guard Tramon Mark picked up the offensive slack. Mark unleashed a career-high 26 points, nearly tripling his season-long average, to help Houston regain the lead seven minutes into the second half and then pull away in the final five minutes.
Had Houston lost, it would have marked the first time in NCAA Tournament history that three No. 1 seeds failed to reach the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend. Purdue became the second No. 1 to be upset by a No. 16 on Friday night, and Kansas fell to eighth-seeded Arkansas on Saturday afternoon.
Houston instead advanced within two wins of a hometown Final Four appearance and set up a Sweet 16 matchup with either Indiana or Miami. A clash with the Hoosiers would pit Sampson against the program where he coached from 2006-08 before resigning amid allegations of NCAA recruiting violations.
In some ways, Houston’s road to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend was more treacherous than other top seeds. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee gave Auburn the chance to play close to home in Birmingham, making the top-seeded Cougars’ second-round matchups a true road game.
Asked on Friday if he expected a 90% pro-Auburn crowd, Sampson chuckled and said, “90%? I’m hoping for 90.” Later in his pregame news conference, Sampson took the opportunity to ask for the support of all the Alabama fans inside Legacy Arena to watch the Crimson Tide face Maryland in Saturday’s doubleheader.
“We need some help,” Sampson said with a smile. “Roll Tide!”
Judging by the roars after every Auburn basket on Friday, Sampson’s pitch didn’t win Houston many new supporters. The Legacy Arena crowd erupted at halftime as Auburn bullied Sasser into an off-balance aerial ball to preserve a 10-point lead.
Houston came out of the break energized and methodically clawed back. Now the Cougars are halfway to a hometown Final Four.