Freshmen shine for Houston Cougars against UCF Knights as team cleans up effort lulls in win

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Phelan M Ebenhack/AP/Shutterstock (13741645n) Houston forward Jarace Walker (25) and guard Tramon Mark (12) celebrate after Walker scored as Central Florida forward Lahat Thioune (0) walks away during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, in Orlando, Fla Houston UCF Basketball, Orlando, United States – 25 Jan 2023

Freshmen shine for Houston Cougars against UCF Knights as team cleans up effort lulls in win

The No. 3 Houston Cougars got back to playing to their identity by winning the effort plays on Wednesday evening against Central Florida.

One of the things UH head coach Kelvin Sampson emphasizes heading into each game is the goal of rebounding at least 50% of the team’s misses. Meaning if the team goes 29-of-57 from the field, equating to 28 missed shots like it did against UCF, the target is to get at least 14 offensive rebounds. Houston did that and more on Wednesday.

“We [rebounded] over 50% of our misses tonight,” Sampson told reporters in Orlando. “That is part of who we are. That is a huge emphasis for us.”

Houston tracked down 16 offensive rebounds against UCF, or 57.14% of its misses. It was a huge increase from the team’s 12 offensive rebounds of its 37 misses, or just 32.43%, against Temple on Sunday.

“That is who we are,” Sampson said. “We have not been rebounding well. I thought we were very below average [Sunday], but you know that is effort man. The ball is not going to come to you, you actually have to go get it.”

The Cougars (19-2, 7-1 American Athletic) held the lead for 35:32 of game time. Despite being in front for much of the outing, the Knights never seemed to be too far behind until the middle-to-latter portion of the second half.

An 11-2 run by Houston that featured two 3-pointers from redshirt freshman guard Emanuel Sharp helped give the Cougars a 65-52 edge with 10:11 left in the game.

UCF, as it did for much of the night, mounted a rally to get back in the game over the course of the next three minutes.

Freshman forward Taylor Hendricks, who ended the game with 17 points and seven rebounds, hit a tough, and-one layup with contact from Houston freshman forward Jarace Walker. The free throw he made cut UH’s lead to just five at 67-62.

With the Cougars leaking and struggling a bit after Hendricks’ basket, it was two freshmen that stepped up to the plate and delivered the insurance shots needed for Houston. First, it was Sharp who made a 3-point basket off an assist from junior point guard Jamal Shead.

“That is what he does,” Sampson said. “Marcus [Sasser] is probably the best shooter on the team, but this one right here is right there with him. He’s been due for a big game like that.”

Then, it was freshman guard Terrance Arceneaux who made a stellar reverse layup driving from the corner to push UH’s lead back to 10.

“That was a big play man cause we were starting to leak oil a little bit,” Sampson said.

In addition to those key back-to-back plays, Walker, another freshman, had a strong showing himself. He had 17 points and four rebounds. Sharp ended the game leading Houston in scoring with 18 points.

After the game, Sharp gave the credit for his ability to perform well to both his head coach and point guard.

“When I’m on the floor, just knowing that coach Sampson has that confidence in me and being on the floor with Jamal [Shead] too, knowing that he is always looking for me and my teammates at all times, just makes it that much easier when I do get the ball cause I know I have that window,” Sharp said.

Shead finished with his seventh career double-double on Wednesday with 14 points and 10 rebounds. He was a fundamental reason why the Cougars came out with the victory, Sampson stated.

“I thought that our defense was good enough,” Sampson said. “Not great, but good enough. But our rebounding and sharing the ball and we had the best player on the floor. Jamal Shead. Jamal Shead was the best player on the floor. His leadership, his toughness, I thought, gave our kids something to follow.”

Not everything was positive for Houston on Wednesday. Sampson said Sasser suffered a knee injury against UCF. The head coach did not go into any specifics as to how severe it was.

“Sasser hurt his knee against UCF,” Sampson stated. “When he hurt his knee, I wasn’t sure he was going to be able to continue on cause Marcus never complains … I took him out of the game and sat him for a while, and you could tell he was never right defensively tonight.”

Sasser missed an extended period of the game in the second half. He was subbed out with 8:44 left in the final period, but he did return to the game with 3:19 left and finished the game on the floor. He also had four fouls.

Houston’s next challenge will be on Saturday at home against Cincinnati. Now with UCF in the rearview mirror, the team will focus on the key areas it didn’t execute as well as it could have against the Knights and prepare for the Bearcats.

“Over the course of a year, and I know this for a fact, you always have slippage,” Sampson said. “You’re not going to start off good and improve every game. Every game, you’re going to slide back, and then, as a coach, you have to say, ‘OK,’ here is some film we need to watch. Here is some areas we need to improve on, and here is how we are going to do it.”

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