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, snapped, and broke. It was open season at No. 1 seeds: Purdue had gone down Friday night; Kansas was laid low on Saturday night. And while Arkansas completed that upset of the Jayhawks, a third No. 1 Houstondissapointing.

The Cougars played in a deplorable road atmosphere here – something that should never happen with a No. 1 seed in the second round – Maroon by 10 points at halftime. Striking guards Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead played through injuries (a groin strain for Sasser, an overstretched knee for Shead) and misread problems. It looked like the Sweet 16 would be contested with no more than one No. 1 seed.

What happened in the next 20 minutes restored some order to the chaos. It also showed why Houston has legitimate hope that it can end the anxious, oh-forever NCAA tournament drought. Opening a look at Auburn, the Cougars beat 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. “In these moments you have to step up.”

Pushed back into a corner, they struck back with depth, experience, defensive tenacity and a fierce survival and advance instinct. “We don’t shy away from anyone,” says striker J’Wan Roberts.

Houston guard Tramon Mark had the game of his life helping Houston recover from a 10-point halftime deficit.

Butch Dill/AP

After quickly closing the 10-point deficit in the second half, Houston faced one final crisis. All-American guard Sasser got his fourth foul with 10:52 left, and team leader Shead got his fourth two-and-a-half minutes later. As they both watched from the couch, this is where Tramon Mark came to the rescue.

“I had courtside seats for the Tramon Mark Show,” says Shead. “It was great to see him take over 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 with nine. He put on a show of iso-artistic.

Coach Kelvin Sampson spread the floor, chasing his big men off 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. Auburn’s skinny southpaw divided possession by possession. Bobbing and bouncing on the dribble, shooting and feints, he kept getting into the paint and shooting over the Tigers or making a foul. With body control, shooting touch and an unerring sense of reading the floor, Mark made his mark on March Madness.

“I just realized I could get everything I wanted in those ISOs,” says Mark. “So I just kept going.”

He scored 16 of Houston’s 20 points as the Cougars went from three to 10 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, the Houston defense went on its usual search-and-destroy mission, forcing 20 misses in 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 steadily pulled away and put that crisis in the rearview mirror in the first half.

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

This outcome delayed a prodigious Saturday roll of the Southeastern Conference. First Tennessee handily defeated Duke as a 3.5 point underdog. Then Arkansas pulled the shocker over Kansas. With Auburn racing to that double-digit lead and Alabama a virtual slot to close out the night, people hardly noticed Missouri’s miserable blowout against No. 15 seed Princeton.

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


Senior guard Marcus Sasser scored 22 points in 31 minutes, allaying any groin injury concerns he sustained during the AAC conference tournament.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Sampson has now led the Cougars to four consecutive Sweet Sixteens, an elite benchmark. The only team with a current longer streak from the Sweet Sixteens is Gonzaga, who are heading into the second round of the Zags against TCU seven times in a row.

And you have to dig deep into Houston’s record book to find the last time this program matched its current run. The 1980s Phi Slama Jams teams failed to make it three in a row. The last time Houston made four in a row was in 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 his eyes on what’s directly in front of him. But the fuss is building. Jim Nantz, a Houston alumnus, the legendary CBS broadcaster working on its latest Final Four, called both of the Cougars’ games here and then circulated in the locker room.

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

It was unpredictable for 20 minutes on Saturday, but Houston regrouped vigorously. Now it’s on to Kansas City.

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

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