Continuing to improve: Houston Cougars basketball used lessons from Alabama to help put away Virginia

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Erin Edgeerton/AP/Shutterstock (13671936i) Virginia forward Jayden Gardner (1) throws the ball up against. Houston forward Jarace Walker (25) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Charlottesville, Va Houston Virginia Basketball, Charlottesville, United States – 17 Dec 2022

Continuing to improve: Houston Cougars basketball used lessons from Alabama to help put away Virginia

The Houston Cougars basketball team picked up its strongest win of the season on Saturday afternoon against the Virginia Cavaliers.

No. 5 Houston (11-1) managed to weather a hot start and a late rally from the No. 2 Cavaliers (8-1) to secure the 69-61 victory in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“I don’t think we overreacted to the start they got because we were getting great looks,” Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson told reporters after the game. “We weren’t having to do anything miraculous to get a good shot. We just weren’t hitting them.”

As Houston got into an offensive rhythm, the Cougars slowly created separation against Virginia. After the second half began, UH saw its lead build to as many as 11 points, the largest deficit the Cavaliers have faced this season. Virginia, however, was resilient and made a run late.

With 4:10 left in the second half, Virginia senior guard Kihei Clark pickpocketed UH junior guard Jamal Shead. Clark went straight to the basket for a fast-break layup, converting the steal into two points that cut the Cougars’ lead to just six, 54-48. On the next play, freshman forward Jarace Walker turned the ball over again, giving Virginia the ball at the media timeout.

Houston responded by getting a defensive stop, capped by a rebound by junior guard Tramon Mark. Shead converted a layup to extend Houston’s lead back to eight. After a basket from Virginia’s Kadin Shedrick, the Cougars came down the floor again for a 3-point basket by Mark to go up by nine. Both assists were dished out by Walker.

After another defensive stop by Houston, Walker came down the floor and put the dagger into the Cavaliers. Walker, guarded by senior forward Jayden Gardner, drove to his right. He faked a spin move to his left and quickly turned back right as he rose for a jumper that hit nothing but the bottom of the net. Just like that, the Cougars were back up 11, and the Cavaliers could not recover.

“I’m not sure we are able to do that without the Alabama experience,” Sampson said. “Young guys, they all think they are superman, but it’s not about being superman. It is about being on a super team.”

Walker did a little bit of everything for Houston against Virginia. He tallied 17 points, secured seven rebounds, and had four assists.

“He’s going to continue to get better,” Sampson said. “He’s a great kid. He comes from a great family. Wants to be good. Wants to be coached. Lives in the gym, [a] great teammate. He has everything you could want.”

As a team, Sampson said Houston’s shot selection was really good. The Cougars had 17 assists in the contest. They attacked certain matchups they liked. All five of Houston’s starters finished in double figures.

Senior guard Marcus Sasser and Mark each had 13 points. Shead had 11 points and four assists, and forward J’Wan Roberts had 10 points and six rebounds.

Coach Sampson added that overall, the players did a great job of executing the game plan Houston had coming into the outing.

One example was how Houston defended Virginia’s guards, Sampson said. The Cougars allowed Clark and the other players to go baseline and then trapped them. Once trapped, the Cougars’ goal was to take away the big man that dove down the middle of the lane. UH wanted Virginia to throw it to the corner and then they covered that, he added.

A week ago against the Crimson Tide, Houston was too passive, yet at the same time a bit too selfish, Sampson said. Having that experience helped them on Saturday against Virginia, he stated.

“It was good that we had this game,” Sampson said. “You don’t ever say let’s go win this game, you say let’s go play good. Let’s go play the right way. Let’s go defend, rebound, play together, play for each other. This game will help us as we go forward.”

Houston edged out Virginia in rebounds, 30-26, including pulling down one more offensive rebound than the Cavaliers. As a team, UH forced the Cavaliers to turn it over 10 times and held them to just 20-of-48 shooting from the field.

“I was proud of our effort,” Sampson said. “Proud of our preparation. Proud of our discipline, and it’s good for our kids to be able to come in this kind of environment and play this well.”

14,629 people packed into John Paul Jones Arena to watch the heavyweight bout between two top-five teams in the nation. Houston’s resilience was on full display as the Cougars excelled in the hostile environment against a team that forces its opponents to be disciplined, Sampson said.

“I think [Houston is] physically tough and mentally tough,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “They are going to make you work. You are going to have to take care of the ball. They’re going to be in front of you. They’re physical young men and they made some plays.”

Houston has one final nonconference game left in the 2022-23 season against McNeese on Wednesday.

The Cougars’ goal is to just improve, Sampson said. There have been lot of new guys and young guys that the Houston Cougars basketball team has had to integrate into their culture, the head coach stated.

“You’re just getting better as you go,” Sampson said. “We’re a much better team today than we were, say, a month ago.”

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