Houston ends a day of SEC dominance

The Cougars became the first top seed to advance to the Sweet 16 after two had already fallen, and averted the best day in SEC basketball history.

The NCAA Tournament bracket bent, snapped, snapped. It’s been open season on the No. 1 seeds: Purdue it had fallen on Friday night. Kansas was low on Saturday afternoon. And while Arkansas completing that Jayhawks turnaround, a third No. 1, Houstonit was shocking.

Playing in a dreary road atmosphere here—something that should never happen to a No. 1 seed in the second round—the Cougars were behind Auburn by 10 points at halftime. Standout guards Marcus Sasser and Jamal Seed were playing through injuries (a groin strain for Sacher, a hyperextended knee for Seed) and overcoming issues. It looked like the Sweet 16 would be contested with just one No. 1 seed.

What happened over the next 20 minutes restored some order to the chaos. It also showed why Houston has reasonable hope that it can end its NCAA tournament drought with a bang. The Cougars opened a can in Auburn, outscoring the Tigers 50–23 in the second half to win by a comfortable margin, 81–64.

“Those are the moments that define programs,” says coach Kelvin Sampson. “You have to rise to these moments.”

Backed in a corner, they fought back with depth, experience, defensive tenacity and a keen instinct to survive and progress. “We don’t back down for anybody,” forward J’Wan Roberts says.

Houston guard Trumon Mark had the game of his life to help Houston rally from a 10-point halftime deficit.

Butch Dill/AP

After quickly closing in on a 10-point deficit in the second half, Houston faced a final crisis. All-American guard Sasser picked up his fourth foul with 10:52 remaining and team captain Shead picked up his fourth two and a half minutes later. With both watching from the bench, Tramon Mark came to the rescue.

“I had courtside seats for the Tramon Mark Show,” says Shead. “It was amazing to see him take the baton out there.”

He is Houston’s fifth leading scorer, averaging 9.6 points per game and taking over the season on the line. Mark scored a career-high 26 points and tied his career high in rebounds with nine. He put on a demonstration of iso art.

Coach Kelvin Sampson opened the floor, moved his big men away from pick-and-roll sets at the top of the key, sent them to the baseline and let his best one-on-one scorer take over. The lanky lefty carved up Auburn possession after possession. Swinging and bouncing off the dribble, dribbling and feinting, he continued to get into the paint and shoot over the Tigers or get fouled. With his body control, shooting touch and unerring feel for reading the floor, Mark made his mark on March Madness.

“I just realized I could get anything I wanted in those isos,” says Mark. “So I just kept going.”

He scored 16 of Houston’s 20 points as the Cougars went from three to 10 in a six-minute span. That, combined with Auburn’s ineptitude at the foul line (19 of 36), silenced the blue-orange crowd at Legacy Arena. At the same time, Houston’s defense was doing its usual search-and-destroy mission, forcing 20 turnovers on 24 field goal attempts in the second half. Roberts and freshman Jarace Walker combined for 11 blocked shots, keeping Auburn’s drivers from finishing at the basket. Houston steadily pulled away, putting its first-half crisis in the rearview mirror.

“In the second half, I don’t think we were as prepared for how aggressive they were going to be,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl says.

That result capped an amazing Saturday roll from the Southeastern Conference. First Tennessee beat Duke as a 3.5 point underdog. Then Arkansas pulled the upset over Kansas. With Auburn racing to that double-digit lead and Alabama a virtual lock to end the night, people barely noticed Missouri’s miserable blaze against No. 15 Princeton.

If the SEC were to put four teams in the Sweet Sixteen before Kentucky even had a chance to get there on Sunday, it would be one of the best days of men’s basketball in the history of America’s premier football conference. Instead, three of them got there — still a very good result for the league, but Houston had none of Auburn’s upset bids.


Senior guard Marcus Sasser scored 22 points in 31 minutes, putting to rest any concerns about the groin injury he suffered during the AAC conference tournament.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Sampson has now led the Cougars to four straight Sweet Sixteens, an elite benchmark. The only team with a current longer Sweet Sixteens streak is Gonzaga, which has played in seven straight games heading into the Zags’ second-round game Sunday against TCU.

And you have to dig deep into the Houston record book to find the last time that schedule matched the current run. The Phi Slama Jams of the 1980s fell short, making it three in a row. The last time Houston made it four in a row was 1965-68, when Elvin Hayes put the program on the map.

With each progressive step, the dream of reaching a hometown Final Four comes more into focus. The confluence of circumstances is a bit overwhelming, so Houston tried to keep his eyes on what was immediately in front of him. But the chukla builds. Houston Alum Jim Nantz, the legendary CBS broadcaster working the last Final Four, has called both of the Cougars’ games here and has been hanging around the locker room afterward.

Just getting through that round felt like a bit of a liberating experience for the Cougars. They won a de facto road game. They have Sasser back in high performance mode and Shead over his knee problem – both will have a few days to rest before the next challenge.

It was a terrible 20 minutes on Saturday, but Houston regrouped in dynamic fashion. He is now in Kansas City.

“We don’t want to go home,” Sasser says. We want this season to continue as long as possible.

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