BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Teammates call him “T-March”.
Tramon Mark lived up to the moniker Saturday night, just in time to save the University of Houston’s season.
Mark had a career-high 26 points and Marcus Sasser added 22 as the No. 1-seeded Cougars erased a 10-point halftime deficit for an 81-64 win over Auburn at Legacy Arena.
“It was a matter of time before that came out,” point guard Jamal Shead said of Mark’s offensive eruption. “He IS prepared for the moment. Today was the right time.”
As the last few seconds passed, the UH contingent began a chant that has become familiar this time of year.
UH (33-3) will play No. 4 Indiana or No. 5 Miami, who play Sunday, in the Sweet 16 in Kansas City, Mo. This will be the Cougars’ fourth straight trip to the Sweet 16.
“Survive and advance,” was a frequent saying here as the Cougars beat #16 Northern Kentucky 63-52 on Thursday and escaped a chaotic opening weekend of upsets that claimed #1 seed Purdue and champion in charge of Kansas.
“We are made for adversity. Look where we were in 2014,” Sampson said of the state of the program upon his arrival. “What is adversity? We were down by 10. We weren’t down by 30.”
In the days leading up to Saturday, the Cougars were faced with questions about a groin injury, a bruised knee, possibly even a bruised ego.
Sampson kept reminding them, “We’re still Houston.”
That Houston showed up in the second half.
That Houston rediscovered his shooting, took control of the backboards and ramped up defensive intensity.
That Houston “went into the pocket,” as Sampson described, when Sasser and Shead benched in trouble midway through the second half.
That Houston notified the rest of the NCAA Tournament field that the road to the Final Four still lies through Third Ward.
“You’ve seen who we are in the last 20 minutes,” Sampson said.
UH matched a program record with its 33rd win of the season, this one probably the least likely after trailing 41-31 at halftime and in front of a white-and-orange backdrop — Auburn was playing about a two-hour drive from the campus – this might as well have turned Legacy Arena into a “Sweet Home Alabama” scene.
After the break, UH showed why they were the best road team in the nation this season.
Sasser, the All-American guard plagued by a groin injury last week, heated up in the second half, delivering back-to-back 3-pointers as the Cougars regained the 46-45 lead with about 13 minutes left. Sasser said he felt an occasional twinge in his groin but stopped it.
“I was in pain,” said Sasser, who played 31 minutes. “But it was pain I could take and keep pushing.”
The Cougars displayed similar tenacity — a mainstay of Sampson’s schedule that some players questioned was lacking in Thursday’s opener — as Auburn had just four second-half field goals and shot 16.7%. Jarace Walker and J’Wan Roberts wreaked havoc indoors with 11 of the team’s 12 blocks, a school record for a tournament game.
Sampson had the ball in Mark’s hands throughout the second half, especially in the stretch when Sasser picked up his third and fourth fouls just 57 seconds into the game and sat on the bench with 10:53 left. Shead, who played with his right knee hyperextended, was called for his fourth foul a couple of minutes later.
“It’s always been something that’s been in my back pocket,” Sampson said of Mark’s ability to score. “We have fastballs and curveballs and then you have a changeup.”
Mark was 6-of-9 from the field in the second half, including a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw line. Lui scored eight points during a tide-turning swing as the Cougars turned a 49-46 deficit into a 56-51 lead. And when Auburn threatened to sneak back, making it 56-55 on a steal and layup by KD Johnson, Mark delivered a key high jumper.
At one point in the second half, Mark scored 18 of the Cougars’ 20 points, a commanding performance for a team in desperate need of a ride.
“I earned that name my freshman year,” Mark said of his last-second tip that sent the Cougars to a second-round win over Rutgers during their Final Four run in 2021. “It feels good to claim that first name”.
Walker had seven points, six blocks and 10 rebounds and Roberts added six points, seven rebounds and five blocks.
Auburn (21-13) went into self-destruct mode in the second half with a stretch of more than 10 1/2 minutes without a field goal and went 4-of-24 from the field after halftime. Auburn struggled from the free throw line, finishing 19 of 36. UH was 18 of 18 from the line in the second half.
“I wish it was a 20-minute game instead of a 40-minute game,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. “They went out and protected us much harder, much better. And we didn’t answer.”
Auburn appeared in control at halftime, tied it 27 all while Jaylin Williams and Wendell Green Jr. hit back-to-back 3-pointers as part of a 17-4 run at the end of the half.
Roberts said there was no panic in the locker room.
“We didn’t want our season to end anytime soon,” he said. “We have changed our mentality. There wasn’t much to talk about, no yelling, no arguing.
Just a different attitude that emerges in the second half.”
As he walked off the field, Roberts blew the Auburn crowd a kiss.
“See you next year,” he said.