March Madness 2023: Houston endures despite setbacks, now halfway to hometown Final Four

It didn’t matter that Houston had to play a virtual road game. Or that two of the Cougars’ best players suffered from injuries and infractions.

The hard-nosed Calvin Sampson team refused to be another disappointment in this year’s unpredictable NCAA men’s tournament.

Starting the second half with a 10-point lead, the top-seeded Houston team responded to their coach’s call to step up their defense. The Cougars surged ahead and methodically squeezed the life out of No. 9 Auburn en route to an 81-64 comeback victory and a fourth consecutive Sweet 16 spot.

Auburn failed to score a single basket in the 10-minute stretch of the second half and scored just four field goals after the break. Prize-winning Houston freshman Jaras Walker and forward J’Wan Roberts nailed the Cougars’ inside defense by combining 11 of their team’s 12 blocked shots.

First team All-American Marcus Sasser struggled with a lingering groin injury, while point guard Jamal Shed dealt with a stubborn knee and junior guard Tramon Mark took up the offensive slack. Mark scored a career-high 26 points, almost three times the season average, helped Houston regain the lead in seven minutes of the second half and then pulled away in the final five minutes.

Had Houston lost, it would have been the first time in NCAA Tournament history that three #1 seeds failed to make the second weekend of an NCAA Tournament. Perdue was the second No. 1, who was waylaid by No. 16 on Friday night, while Kansas made way for Arkansas, which finished eighth on Saturday afternoon.

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

Instead, Houston advanced within two wins after their hometown Final Four appearance and set up a Sweet 16 matchup with either Indiana or Miami. A clash with the Hoosiers would turn Sampson against the program in which he coached from 2006 to 2008 before retiring amid allegations of NCAA hiring violations.

In some ways, Houston’s path to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament has been more treacherous than the other leaders. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee gave Auburn a chance to play close to home in Birmingham, turning the Cougars’ top-seeded second-round game into a real road game.

When asked Friday if he expected the crowd to be 90% Auburn supporters, Sampson chuckled and said, “90%? I hope 90.” Later in his pre-game press conference, Sampson took the opportunity to ask for support from all the Alabama fans who were at Legacy Arena to watch Crimson Tide take on Maryland in a double-header Saturday Nightcap.

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

Judging by the roar after every Auburn shot on Friday, Sampson’s serve didn’t bring Houston many new fans. The Legacy Arena crowd erupted as the break buzzer sounded as Auburn forced Sasser to knock the balloon off balance to maintain a 10-point lead.

Houston came out of the break with new energy and methodically bounced back. The Cougars are now halfway to the hometown Final Four.


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