It didn’t matter that Houston had to play a virtual road game. Or that two of the Cougars’ best players were plagued by injuries and fouls.
Calvin Sampson’s tough, determined team refused to become the latest upset victim in this year’s unpredictable NCAA men’s tournament.
Facing a 10-point deficit when the second half began, top-seeded Houston answered a challenge from its coach to dial down its defensive effort. The Cougars took the lead and methodically squeezed out ninth-seeded Auburn en route to an 81–64 comeback victory and a berth in their fourth straight Sweet 16.
Auburn failed to score a single basket for a 10-minute second-half stretch and managed only four field goals after halftime. Pryce Houston freshman Jarece Walker and fellow forward Ja’Vaun Roberts anchored the Cougars’ interior defense, combining for 11 of their team’s 12 blocked shots.
With first-team All-American Marcus Sasser battling a longstanding groin injury and point guard Jamal Sheid battling a strained knee, junior guard Tramon Marks took on the offensive slack. Mark scored a career-high 26 points, nearly triple his season-long average, to help Houston take the lead seven minutes into the second half and then pull away in the closing five minutes.
Had Houston joined Purdue and Kansas as top-seeded upset victims, it would have marked the first time in NCAA Tournament history that three No. 1 seeds failed to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars instead moved within two wins of a Final Four appearance in their home city and set up an attractive Sweet 16 matchup with either Indiana or Miami.
Houston’s road to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament was more treacherous than that of the other top seeds. The NCAA tournament selection committee gave Auburn the chance to play closer to home in Birmingham, turning the second round matchup of the top-seeded Cougars into a true road game.
Asked Friday if he expected a 90% pro-Auburn crowd, Houston coach Calvin Sampson laughed, “90%? I’m expecting 90.” Later in his news conference, Sampson denied any Alabama seized the opportunity to ask for the support of fans who were inside Legacy Arena to watch the Crimson Tide take on Maryland in Saturday’s doubleheader nightcap.
“We need some help,” Sampson said with a smile. “roll Tide!”
Judging by the roar after every Auburn basket on Friday, Sampson’s pitching didn’t give Houston many new supporters. When Auburn fouled Marcus Sasser on an off-balance airball to maintain a 10-point lead, the Legacy Arena crowd began to sound the halftime buzzer.
Houston re-emerged at halftime and systematically clawed their way back into the lead on a 25–10 spurt. Swirling defense held Auburn to just one field goal in the opening 12 minutes of the second half, and Mark got some much-needed offense with Sasser and Shedd getting foul trouble.