Houston endures biggest challenge yet, now halfway through hometown Final Four

It didn’t matter that Houston had to play a virtual road game. Or that two of the Cougars’ best players have been hampered by injuries and fouls.

Kelvin Sampson’s tough and tenacious team refused to become the latest thwarted victim of this year’s unpredictable NCAA Men’s Tournament.

With a 10-point deficit early in the second half, top-seeded Houston responded to their coach’s challenge to step up their defensive effort. The Cougars took the lead and methodically knocked out the life of ninth-seeded Auburn en route to an 81-64 comeback win and a berth in a fourth straight Sweet 16.

Auburn failed to score a single field goal in a 10-minute second period and only managed four field goals in total after halftime. Prized Houston freshman Jarace Walker and fellow forward J’Wan Roberts anchored the Cougars’ interior defense, combining for 11 of their team’s 12 blocked shots.

As first-team All-American Marcus Sasser battled a lingering groin injury and point guard Jamal Shead dealt with a recalcitrant knee, junior guard Tramon Mark took over offensively. Mark unleashed a career-high 26 points, nearly triple his season average, to help Houston regain the lead seven minutes into the second half and then pull away in the final five minutes.

Had Houston lost, it would have marked the first time in NCAA Tournament history that three No. 1 seeds had failed to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Purdue became the second No. 1 to be attacked by a No. 16 on Friday night and Kansas fell to eighth-seeded Arkansas on Saturday afternoon.

Marcus Sasser of the Houston Cougars talks to a coach during the first half against the Auburn Tigers on March 18.  (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Marcus Sasser of the Houston Cougars talks to a coach during the first half against the Auburn Tigers on March 18. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Houston instead advanced in both wins from a Final Four appearance in its hometown and set up a Sweet 16 game with either Indiana or Miami. A matchup with the Hoosiers would pit Sampson against the program where he coached from 2006 to 2008 before resigning amid allegations of NCAA recruiting violations.

In some ways, Houston’s path to weekend two of the NCAA Tournament has been more dangerous than the other top seeds. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee offered Auburn the chance to play near home in Birmingham, turning the top-seeded Cougars’ second-round game into a real game on the road.

When asked on Friday if he expected a 90% pro-Auburn crowd, Sampson laughed and replied, “90%? Hopefully 90. Later in his pre-game press conference, Sampson took the opportunity to ask for support from all of the Alabama fans who were inside Legacy Arena to watch the Crimson Tide take on Maryland in Saturday’s last drink.

“We need help,” Sampson said with a smile. “The tide is rolling!”

Judging by the roars after every Auburn basket on Friday, Sampson’s pitch didn’t gain many new fans in Houston. The Legacy Arena crowd erupted as the halftime buzzer sounded when Auburn harassed Sasser in an off-balance airball to hold a 10-point lead.

Houston came out of the half invigorated and methodically clawed its way back. The Cougars are now halfway to a local Final Four.

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