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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The only two No. 1 seeds left in the NCAA Tournament reside here in football country.
No. 1 seed Houston ventured into the belly of the beast and beat No. 9 seed Auburn in what amounted to a road game for the Cougars two hours from Auburn’s campus. But Houston wore down the Tigers and silenced the capacity crowd of 17,654 at Legacy Arena for an 81-64 win in the second round.
And the Cougars went to 9-0 on the road this season. Just wait until they get back home to Houston, where the Final Four will be April 1-3.
Houston (33-3) advances to Kansas City for the round of 16 next week and is two wins away from hosting the Final Four. The Cougars will play Thursday against the winner of No. 4 seed Indiana (23-11) and No. 5 seed Miami (26-7) on Sunday (8:40 p.m., TNT) in Albany, New York.
Auburn (21-13) looked like it might run away with the third toppling of a No. 1 seed in two days as it took a 41-31 lead at the half.
No. 1 Kansas fell earlier Saturday to No. 8 Arkansas. And No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson shocked No. 1 Purdue on Friday night.
No. 1 seed Alabama was scheduled to play in a late game Saturday against 8 seed Maryland here. And Maryland coach Kevin Willard was hoping for an Auburn win so its fans would stay and cheer against Alabama in his game.
“I’m afraid if Auburn loses, then at 9:40 at night, knowing Auburn fans,” Willard said Friday, “they’re probably going to the bar.”
Houston, on the other hand, remained up at halftime despite the 10-point deficit.
“We didn’t even hang our heads,” Houston junior guard Tramon Mark said. “We played way harder than we did in the first half.”
Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson Kept Calm
Mark scored a career-high 26 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
“No panic. Kept our composure,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “We’re used to playing on the road, and this felt like a road game. I think the biggest adjustment at halftime was in our attitude. Sometimes that’s the most important thing.”
Sampson yelled at his team throughout the first half as it didn’t seem interested in defense. But he did not holler at halftime.
“I don’t know what we were doing in the first half,” Sampson said. “We were helping them. Sometimes it’s not always about fussin’ and cussin’. I just told them if we play defense, we’ll get back in the game.”
Houston Rebounds Like A True No. 1 Seed
Houston became a new team in the second half and rebounded like a No. 1 seed. It also outrebounded the Tigers 8-0 to open the period. The Cougars quickly got back into the game. A 3-pointer by guard Marcus Sasser with 12:57 left put the Cougars up 46-45 for their first lead since the five-minute mark of the first half.
Sasser entered the game with a groin injury, but he scored nine in the first half on 2-of-5 shooting from 3-point range and hit 3 of 3 free throws. He said at halftime he was only 60 percent, but he looked better than that as the Cougars opened the second half. Sasser hit a jumper at the 17:39 mark to cut Auburn’s lead to 43-38. He finished with 22 points.
Auburn missed 7 of its first 8 shots in the second half and looked tentative. It soon returned to form, but it could not keep up with Houston.
“Kinda wish it was a 20-minute game instead of a 40-minute game,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl mused. “Yeah. I’m sure Kelvin jumped all over them at half. They guarded us much better. We didn’t respond to it.”
Auburn Fell Apart Down The Stretch
The Cougars went ahead for good at 52-50 with 9:32 left on a pair of free throws by guard Jamal Shead, who was also nursing a knee injury. Shead finished with 10 points and five assists. Houston eventually stretched that to 62-55 on two free throws by J’Wan Roberts with 5:53 left.
Auburn then wilted down the stretch as it has done so often this season. The Cougars moved to a double-digit lead late in the game. Houston outrebounded Auburn, 45-34, for the game and outscored Auburn, 50-23, in the second half.
“Houston did the things they needed to do to get back in the game, but we helped them,” Pearl said.
“We’re a good team,” Sampson said.
Auburn never really was for long this season.
Houston looked lifeless by the half, but not for long.
“These are the moments that define programs,” Sampson said. “That first half was ridiculous.”
So was Houston’s comeback.
One CommentLeave a Reply
Loved the video of the Auburn player who said he didn’t even know WHO Kelvin Sampson was. He knows now.