Houston rallies to blast Auburn, move to Sweet 16

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Houston coach Kelvin Sampson felt no panic from his players as they trailed Auburn by 10 points at halftime in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He therefore chose not to light his team as they gathered in the locker room.

“Sometimes it’s not always about fussing and swearing and yelling at it,” Sampson said. “I didn’t do that. I just said, ‘If we play our defense, we can get back into this game. “”

And he was right. The Cougars’ defense turned up the pressure and the Tigers crumbled, going cold from the field and icy from the free throw line. The No. 1 seed Houston needed just seven minutes to take the lead in the second half and eventually ran away with an 81-64 victory over the No. 9 seed Auburn.

Sampson explained that the Cougars didn’t make a ton of changes to the game plan during intermission. He said he challenged injured guards Marcus Sasser (groin) and Jamal Shead (leg) to care less about their health and more about the competition.

“The biggest adjustment has been in our attitude,” Sampson said. “Sometimes that’s the most important thing.”

But, schematically, the Cougars swung more on defense and contested more shots. They finished with four steals and 12 blocks. Auburn was 4 of 24 field goal attempts in the second half.

On offense, Sampson said he executed fewer designed plays, spreading the field and making the most of one-on-one opportunities.

When Sasser, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, went to the bench with four fouls, junior guard Tramon Mark thrived in isolation, taking advantage of his size against Auburn’s smaller defenders and accumulating 26 points, a team high.

“I just realized I could get anything I wanted,” Mark said. “The coach trusted me and I kept chasing them.”

Sasser said it was exactly the kind of performance he expected from Mark. He too saw a change in attitude from his teammates at the end of half-time.

“We didn’t want to go home,” Sasser said. “We wanted this season to last as long as possible.”

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl acknowledged his team “didn’t respond” when Houston continued their run in the second half, saying the Tigers were unprepared for the Cougars’ aggressive play.

Going 19 of 36 from the free throw line was particularly frustrating.

“But what’s more frustrating is that it’s something you can’t control,” Pearl said.

Pearl said the plan going into the game was solid.

“I wish it was a 20 minute game instead of 40,” he said.


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