Smith: UH’s win over Auburn reminds us why they’re No. 1

The final 20 minutes in Birmingham, Alabama didn’t just save the University of Houston’s season.

The Cougars’ second-half dominance — a 50-23 against a good Auburn team — was the latest reminder that all is still ahead of UH and a magical 2022-23 season could end history.

Somehow, someway, get out of Birmingham.

That was the Coogs’ main focus after battling No. 16 Northern Kentucky in an NCAA Tournament opener, then trailing No. 9 Auburn by 10 points going into halftime.

UH once again looked like a true No. 1 seed, eventually knocking out the Tigers 81-64 on Saturday night to capture Legacy Arena.

“We know what’s ahead and we’re not afraid of it,” said Cougars point guard Jamal Shead, inside a locker room filled with renewed confidence. “We are not afraid of the moment. A lot of guys in this team are really built for that and we can’t wait for the next round.

With No. 1s Purdue and Kansas already eliminated, there’s no doubt Kelvin Sampson’s team belongs to the best in the country.

Now, star guards Marcus Sasser and Shead will receive more than five days off before the Midwest Region top seed plays again in Kansas City, Missouri.

Now, the UH coaching staff has a full week of work to bring down the next opponent in the dance. Coming into Sunday night, No. 4 Indiana and No. 5 Miami were yet to play for right field. Both are Auburn-esque, which will set the Cougars as the clear favorite with the Elite Eight one win on the road.

After Sasser aggravated his groin injury in the first round and UH fought to sideline the little-known Norwegian, Shead acknowledged his team was dealing with nerves.

Since the Coogs missed a few shots against Villanova in last season’s Elite Eight, it was easy to draw a line between UH and the 2023 Final Four in Houston. But that connection has also been filled with daily pressures and heightened national expectations for an agenda that was still neglected just a few years ago.

UH played tight (and messy) against Northern Kentucky.

During the first half against Auburn, Sampson’s team was still dull and in serious danger of throwing away the program’s best season in decades.

“I thought Shead was out there in the first half. I thought Marcus’ leg or groin was bothering him sideways,” Sampson said. “I said, ‘You’re either going to play or you’re not going to play. If you’re going to be out there, you have to keep watch.’ So I think both were more interested in their injuries than in the competition.”

Then the all-out bravado of UH returned.

Then a 33-3 team rediscovered the relentless offense that had only placed the Cougars behind No. 1 seed Alabama entering this tournament.

“Once we go out and play our defense, we’re a good defensive team,” Sampson said. “You can look at their free throw percentage all you want, but look at their shooting percentage from the field. This is what changed the game. We started getting stops long before they started missing free throws.”

When you keep a 21-win SEC team on the road to 37.7 percent shooting from the floor and the mounting pressure leads to 52.8 percent shooting from the line, you can win a couple more games in Kansas City and be the team of home in the Final Four.

No. 3 Xavier outlasted Kennesaw State in the first round and owned Pittsburgh on Sunday. The Musketeers are good enough to reach Houston and have spent the season battling against top 25 teams.

No. 2 Texas versus No. 1 Houston in the Elite Eight, with 40 minutes on the hardwood separating the Longhorns and Cougars from a national stage inside NRG Stadium?

It’s a dream match and it will be a match in preparation for a full season if it is played next Sunday.

The Coogs’ dominant last 20 minutes in Birmingham reminded us that they are still in control of everything.

They have a number 1 attached to their name for a reason.

When UH plays defense the UH way, no one wants to face Sampson’s team in this tournament. Especially not in Houston.

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