BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Heart.
Forty minutes of pride across the board.
All that made the University of Houston one of the best basketball teams in the country as this NCAA tournament approaches.
All that erased a 10-point halftime deficit against No. 9 Auburn inside Legacy Arena Saturday night as Kelvin Sampson’s No. 1 Cougars dug deep to bring forth an 81-64 electric victory .
Hello, Sweet 16 — for the fourth consecutive season.
Goodbye, Birmingham, finally.
Marcus Sasser was Sasser again. Jamal Shead surged forward when his teammate was forced to the bench. Tramon Mark, J’Wan Roberts and Jarace Walker gave it their all when both starting guards were forced to the sideline. And the second-half return of the Sampson Ball kept alive UH’s dream of being the home team for a historic Final Four in Houston.
Even with a 32-3 record coming into Saturday night, Shead said nerves racked the Coogs during a not-like performance at UH Thursday against a No. 1 seed.
“Over the years, I’ve had games where I thought we played well, we just didn’t play well enough to win,” Sampson said, after UH held off Northern Kentucky 63-52 in the first round. “(Thursday), I didn’t think we played well, but we played well enough to win. Sometimes it’s like this: looking around the country, I know a lot of teams that would swap places with us.
The Cougars’ reward for surviving and advancing against a lesser opponent they should have dominated: facing a surging Auburn team about two hours from the Tigers’ home, with orange and blue saturated an arena that was subsequently filled of Alabama devotees on Saturday night.
As UH outran the Norwegians, Sampson acknowledged his primary concern was how many healthy bodies he would have under 48 hours later against the Tigers.
Star guards Sasser and Shead, who both battled injuries against Northern Kentucky, were adamant that they were healthy as the tip-off against Auburn approached.
But even as Sampson attempted to pump up his team, underlining his belief that UH would regain its relentless form for the second round, the veteran coach embraced every possible advantage for a No. 1 seed in need of health. and rest more than anything else.
“We’re playing Auburn, 6:10,” Sampson said. “Let’s go. We need help. Roll Tide.
Returning to the Sweet 16 was a turning point on the Coogs’ schedule in 2019, as Corey Davis, Armoni Brooks and Galen Robinson Jr. led a spirited team that heralded the return of UH as a national force.
Only the coronavirus pandemic stood in the way of a similar platform a season later. Then it was the Final Four, the Elite Eight, and a 2022-23 run that saw Sampson’s team consistently in the spotlight at or near the top of the country.
A month ago, UH reaching the Sweet 16 seemed like a formality.
After the battered Cougars barely had enough to beat Northern Kentucky, trade Birmingham for Kansas City, Mo. — and standing up to everything Legacy Arena has shouted in Auburn’s name — would be another breakthrough for Sampson and Co.
“For us, he’s just preparing for that,” Sampson said. “Be ready for the opportunity. Be ready for the challenge. Go attack him and let’s see what we can do.
The Midwest Region’s #1 seed was loudly booed 20 minutes before the tip and during the final pre-game warmup. Mixed between all the Auburn orange and Alabama crimson: “Whose house?” and “Go Coogs” signs.
Bruce Pearl gave Sampson a crossfield thumbs-up just before the tip.
“Let’s go Auburn” echoed around the arena.
The battle had begun.
Sasser made it 3-0 with a three-pointer, and two sections of traveling UH fans immediately spoke up. The senior guard then scored nine of the Cougars’ 18 starting points.
Then the SEC size and Auburn’s athleticism took over.
The Tigers connected on 15-of-28 field goal attempts, including 5-of-11 3s, and held a 39–31 lead with 1:09 left in the first half.
When the lead reached 10, a frustrated Sampson called a timeout and Legacy Arena was maxed out again.
UH’s final possession captured a first half that kept declining. Shead drained the watch, then tried to frame Sasser. Auburn swarmed and a desperate blow was forced as the Coogs were driven back.
Then the real UH reappeared, again.
Sasser and Shead started finding openings. A 9-2 run just after halftime cut the Tigers’ lead to 45-43, leaving Pearl frustrated on the sideline and Sampson fueling his team’s newfound energy.
Another Sasser 3 handed UH a 46-45 lead, with the All-American creating space near the top of the key, then yelling at his dugout.
Even when Sasser and Shead were sidelined with four personal fouls each, the Cougars continued to fight and maintain their lead.
A “Houston” chant echoing through an arena that was supposed to belong to the other team.
Another year of sweetness for one of the best programs in the country.
Win two more of those and the Final Four is home this year.