Houston ends a day of SEC dominance

The Cougars became the first top seed to advance to the Sweet 16 after two had already fallen, preventing what could have been the best day in SEC basketball history.

The NCAA Tournament bracket bent, broke, broke. It was open season on the No. 1 seed: Purdue had gone down on Friday night; Kansas was laid low on Saturday night. And period Arkansas completed that upset of the Jayhawks, a third No. 1, Houstonwas staggering.

They played in a regrettable road atmosphere here — something that should never happen to a No. 1 seed in the second round — the Cougars were after. Auburn by 10 points at the break. Standout guards Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead played through injuries (a groin strain for Sasser, a hyperextended knee for Shead) and navigated mistakes. It looked like the Sweet 16 wouldn’t be contested by more than a single No. 1 seed.

What happened over the next 20 minutes restored some order to the chaos. It also showed why Houston has legitimate hope that it can end its anxiety-filled, oh-for-ever NCAA tournament drought. The Cougars opened a can on Auburn, outscoring the Tigers 50–23 in the second half to win by a comfortable 81–64 margin.

“These are the moments that define programs,” says coach Kelvin Sampson. “You have to step up in these moments.”

Backed into a corner, they fought back with depth, experience, defensive tenacity and a fierce survival-and-advance instinct. “We don’t back down from anybody,” forward J’Wan Roberts says.

Houston guard Tramon Mark had the game of his life to help Houston come back from a 10-point deficit.

Butch Dill/AP

After closing the 10-point deficit quickly in the second half, Houston faced a final crisis. American guard Sasser picked up his fourth foul with 10:52 left, and team leader Shead picked up his fourth two and a half minutes later. With both watching from the bench, Tramon Mark came to the rescue.

“I had farmside seats to the Tramon Mark Show,” says Shead. “It was amazing to see him take over out there.”

He is Houston’s fifth leading scorer, averaging 9.6 points per game, and he took over with the season on the line. Mark scored a career-high 26 points and tied his rebounding career high with nine. He performed with isokunstneri.

Coach Kelvin Sampson spread the floor, darting his big men away from pick-and-roll sets at the top of the key, sending them to the baseline and letting his best one-on-one scorer take over. The lanky lefty carved up Auburn possession after possession. Bobbing and bouncing off the dribble, darting and feinting, he kept getting into the paint and shooting over the Tigers or getting fouled. With body control, touch and an impeccable sense of reading the floor, Mark made his mark on March Madness.

“I realized I could get anything I wanted in these isos,” says Mark. “So I just kept walking.”

He scored 16 of Houston’s 20 points as the Cougars went from three down to 10 up in six minutes. That, combined with Auburn’s ineptitude at the foul line (19 of 36), silenced the blue-and-orange crowd at Legacy Arena. At the same time, Houston’s defense performed its usual search-and-destroy mission, forcing 20 misses on 24 field goal attempts in the second half. Roberts and freshman Jarace Walker combined for 11 blocked shots, preventing Auburn drivers from finishing at the basket. Houston pulled away steadily, putting the crisis in the first half in the rearview mirror.

“In the second half, I don’t think we were as prepared for how aggressive they would be,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl says.

This result slowed down a fantastic Saturday roll by the Southeastern Conference. First, Tennessee beat Duke handily as a 3.5-point underdog. Then Arkansas pulled the shocker over Kansas. With Auburn racing to a double-digit lead and Alabama a virtual lock to end the night, people barely noticed Missouri’s miserable flameout against No. 15 seed Princeton.

If the SEC put four teams in the Sweet Sixteen before Kentucky even had a chance to get there Sunday, it would have been one of the better men’s basketball days in the history of America’s premier soccer conference. Instead, three of them got there — still a very good record for the league, but Houston had none of the Auburn upset bid.


Senior guard Marcus Sasser scored 22 points in 31 minutes, putting to rest any concerns about the groin injury he suffered during the AAC conference.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Sampson has now guided the Cougars to four straight Sweet Sixteens, an elite benchmark. The only team with a current longer streak of Sweet Sixteens is Gonzaga, which has hit seven straight heading into the Zags’ second-round game Sunday against TCU.

And you’d have to dig deep into the Houston record book to find the last time this program matched the current streak. The Phi Slama Jams teams of the 1980s didn’t make it, they did three straight. The last time Houston made it four in a row was 1965-68, when Elvin Hayes put the program on the map.

With each progressive step, the dream of reaching a hometown Final Four comes more into focus. The confluence of circumstances is a bit overwhelming, which is why Houston has tried to keep its eyes on what’s right in front of it. But it is building. Houston alum Jim Nantz, the legendary CBS broadcaster working his last Final Four, has called both Cougars games here and circulated in the locker room afterward.

Just getting past this round felt like a bit of a liberating experience for the Cougars. They won a de facto road game. They got Sasser back into high performance mode and Shead overcame his knee problem – both will have a few days before the next challenge.

It was a tough 20 minutes Saturday, but Houston regrouped in a powerful way. Now it’s on to Kansas City.

“We don’t want to go home,” says Sasser. – We want this season to continue as long as possible.

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