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 were hampered by injuries and foul trouble.

Kelvin Sampson's tough, tenacious team refused to become the latest upset victim in this year's unpredictable NCAA men's tournament.

Staring at a 10-point deficit when the second half began, top-seeded Houston dialed up its effort defensively and methodically squeezed the life out of Auburn. The ninth-seeded Tigers managed just four second-half baskets as the Cougars surged their way to an 81-64 comeback victory and a berth in a fourth consecutive Sweet 16.

With first-team All-American Marcus Sasser battling a lingering groin injury and point guard Jamal Shead coping with a balky knee, other Houston players picked up the slack. Junior guard Tramon Mark unleashed a career-high 26 points, nearly triple his season-long average. Prized freshman Jarace Walker and fellow forward J’Wan Roberts anchored the Cougars’ interior defense, combining for 11 of their team’s 12 blocked shots.

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 NCAA tournament’s second weekend. The Cougars instead advanced within two victories of a Final Four appearance in their home city and set up an enticing Sweet 16 matchup with either Indiana or Miami.

Houston’s path to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend was more treacherous than other top seeds. The NCAA tournament selection committee gifted Auburn the chance to play close to home in Birmingham, turning the top-seeded Cougars’ second-round matchup into a true road game.

Asked on Friday if he expected a 90% pro-Auburn crowd, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson chuckled and said, “90%? I'm hoping 90.” Later in his news conference, Sampson seized the opportunity to ask for the support of any Alabama 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 from the roars after every Auburn basket on Friday, Sampson’s pitch didn’t win Houston many new supporters. The Legacy Arena crowd erupted as the halftime buzzer sounded when Auburn harassed Marcus Sasser into an off-balance airball to preserve a 10-point lead.

Houston emerged from halftime reenergized and methodically clawed its way back into the lead with a 25-10 surge. Swarming defense held Auburn to just one field goal in the opening 12 minutes of the second half, and Mark delivered some much-needed offense with Sasser and Shead saddled with foul trouble.

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