Marcus Sasser looked fine, scoring 22 points, and top-seeded Houston stifled local favorite Auburn in the second half to claim an 81-64 NCAA Tournament win Saturday night.
The Cougars (33-3) overcame a 10-point deficit in the first half, and came back after the break with a chip on their shoulders.
After the track closed, Houston played in the desperation of a national championship contender who wasn’t prepared to suffer the same fate as Purdue and Kansas – the number one spot already sent home.
Houston, led by Tramon Mark, moved up by 26 points to face either No. 4 Indiana or No. 5 Miami, who play Sunday, at the Sweet 16 in Kansas City, Missouri.
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The Tigers (21-13) were decimated by going over 10 1/2 minutes without a field goal and finishing just 4 of 24 from the field in the second half.
Auburn had a lot of misses, but struggled mightily at the 19-of-36 line. Jaylen Williams and Johnny Broome led the Tigers with 14 points each.
Sasser has had a thigh injury over the past week, but that doesn’t seem to be causing him any problems. When he rolled a 3-pointer to put Houston ahead, 46-45, he let out an emphatic howl on his way down the field.
He finished 5 of 9 beyond the arc.
Sasser’s only problem was a foul problem. The American goalkeeper and running mate Jamal Shedd were both forced to be benched with four fouls each as the match remained in doubt.
But Mark kept the Cougars right to roll offensively, and the defense led by Jarras Walker refused to let Auburn back into the game.
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Houston had 12 blocks, half of which were crushed by Walker. Houston scored the final nine points to finally open up, with Sasser hitting another master shot from behind the 3-point bar.
Auburn broke up 17-4 in the final five minutes of the first half. Williams scored eight of those points, making a triple hit and also converting a three-point play.
Houston missed six of its last eight shots in the first half, its only baskets coming from a layup.
But the Cougars wouldn’t be denied, even with the Tigers’ home state advantage. Legacy Arena in Birmingham is about a two hour drive from their campus in East Alabama.
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The Big Picture
AUBURN: The Tigers have wrapped up an inconsistent season in fitting fashion. They won their last consecutive games on January 18 and 21, and closed out the season by winning just five of their last 15 games.
HOUSTON: Sasser now has plenty of time to rest his hip, which gives him more confidence that he won’t have any more problems.
Houston is heading to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the past five years under Kelvin Sampson. The Cougars have never won a national title, although they have made six Final Four appearances.
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