Houston 81, Auburn 64: Five reasons the Cougars are heading to another Sweet 16

For the fourth straight NCAA Tournament, the University of Houston is heading into the Sweet 16 following Saturday’s 81-64 win over No. 9 seed Auburn in Birmingham, Ala.

Here are five reasons why the top-seeded Cougars are heading to Kansas City for a Sweet 16 matchup on Friday against either Miami or Indiana.

Tramon Mark game

As a freshman, Mark had one memorable NCAA Tournament moment, with a tip-in that beat Rutgers in the second round during the Cougars’ run to the 2021 Final Four. What he did on Saturday was arguably bigger.

With fellow guards Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead struggling during the second half, Mark surged to the fore, scoring 26 points, with 20 going into the second half. Mark may often be the forgotten member of that triad of guards, but the Cougars are almost certainly going home if it weren’t for him.

Free throws

Free throws in the NCAA Tournament have been a Houston bête noire for decades. After the Cougars missed the front end in a pair of one-and-one situations, CBS play-by-play man and UH alum Jim Nantz noted “it still hurts from 1983,” referring to the errors from the line in the championship game loss to NC State that still haunts longtime Cougars fans.

But UH was superior on the streak on Saturday, making 24-of-29 free throws compared to a brutal 19-of-36 shown by Auburn. Incredibly, UH went 18-of-18 on free throws during the second half. Given their foul troubles in big games over the years, that’s absolutely astounding.

Sasser’s first explosion

Marcus Sasser’s taut groin was the talk of the day between Thursday’s win over Northern Kentucky and Saturday’s game. But Sasser answered any questions about the status of him scoring the Cougars’ first six points, making a big early statement.

Foul problems seemed to be slowing Sasser down more than his injury on Saturday. But he came back for the final stretch and essentially iced the Cougars’ victory with a 3-pointer with 1:42 left for an 11-point lead.

Mental toughness

When in Houston to call the Cougars’ matchup against Alabama in December, ESPN’s Dan Shulman noted of UH, “there’s no tougher team than these guys.”

The Cougars lived up to those words Saturday. Towards the end of the first half, it seemed like the roof was closing in on them. They were playing a virtual road game against a team playing two hours from its campus with Auburn fans filling the arena. And UH had just been tied on a 17-4 run at the end of the half, finding themselves down by 10 and the season could be over in 20 minutes.

But the Cougars opened the second half on a 15-4 run to retake the lead. UH definitely took the lead with 9:32 left, never looking back as part of a second half in which they outscored Auburn 50-23.

Neighborhood party

The Cougars, among the stingiest defensive teams in the nation all season, showed why with a star rim guard.

They blocked 12 Auburn shots, led by Jarace Walker (6) and J’Wan Roberts (5). Roberts, a glue all season long, had a vintage stat with 6 points, 7 rebounds and 5 blocks. Walker, with 7 points, wasn’t a great offensive factor but he compensated on the boards (10 rebounds) and with his blocks.

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