Marcus Sasser looked good, scoring 22 points, and top-seeded Houston stifled home favorite Auburn in the second half for an 81-64 victory in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night.
The Cougars (33-3) overcame a 10-point halftime deficit and returned after the break with a chip on their shoulders.
Essentially shutting down the lane, Houston played with the desperation of a national championship contender not ready to suffer the same fate as Purdue and Kansas: No. 1s already sent home.
Led by Tramon Mark with 26 points, Houston advanced to face No. 4 Indiana or No. 5 Miami, who play on Sunday, at the Sweet 16 in Kansas City, Missouri.
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The Tigers (21-13) were doomed on a stretch of more than 10 1/2 minutes without a field goal and went just 4-of-24 from the field in the second half.
Auburn fouled a lot, only to struggle mightily down the line on 19 of 36. Jaylin Williams and Johni Broome led the Tigers with 14 points each.
Sasser had been dealing with a groin injury for the past week, but that didn’t seem to cause him any trouble. When he hit a 3-pointer to push Houston ahead, 46-45, he let out an emphatic yell on his way back onto the court.
He finished 5 of 9 beyond the arc.
Sasser’s only problem was the foul problem. The All-American guard and his running mate, point guard Jamal Shead, were forced to go to the bench with four fouls each with the game still in doubt.
But Mark kept the Cougars going offensively, and the Jarace Walker-led defense simply refused to let Auburn get back into the game.
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Houston had 12 blocks, half of them crushed by Walker. Houston scored the final nine points to open the scoring late, with Sasser hitting another key shot from beyond the 3-point range.
Auburn went on a 17-4 run in the final five and a half minutes of the first half. Williams scored eight of those points, hitting a 3-pointer and also converting on a three-point play.
Houston missed six of its last eight shots in the half, its only baskets coming on a pair of layups.
But the Cougars wouldn’t back down, even with the Tigers holding a state-of-origin lead. Legacy Arena in Birmingham is just a two-hour drive from its East Alabama campus.
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Auburn: The Tigers ended an inconsistent season in appropriate fashion. The last time they won back-to-back games was on January 18 and 21, closing out the season by winning just five of their last 15 games.
Houston: Sasser now has plenty of time to rest his groin, which should give him even more confidence that he won’t have any more problems.
UNTIL NEXT TIME
Houston heads to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the past five years under the coaching of Kelvin Sampson. The Cougars have never won a national title, despite six Final Four appearances.