Houston Cougars basketball finds ‘a way to win’ despite second-half rally by UCF

Mandatory Credit: Photo by David J Phillip/AP/Shutterstock (13690106n) Houston’s J’Wan Roberts (13) reacts after making a basket while being fouled during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Central Florida, in Houston. Houston won 71-65 UCF Basketball, Houston, United States – 31 Dec 2022

Houston Cougars basketball finds ‘a way to win’ despite second-half rally by UCF

The Houston Cougars basketball team and Central Florida Knights competed in an intense back-and-forth American Athletic Conference battle on Saturday afternoon inside the Fertitta Center.

After a wild second half that included runs by both teams, an absurd shot that bounced off the top of the backboard and into the hands of UCF’s Michael Durr for a put-back, late-game free throws, and just about everything else, it was No. 3 Houston that came out with a 71-65 gritty win.

“I was proud of our guys,” Houston Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson told reporters after the game. “We may not have had our fastball today, but we found a way to win. That’s what is important. It’s finding a way to win when maybe you don’t have your best stuff.”

The Cougars, who improved to 14-1 on the season and 2-0 against AAC opponents, overcame a hot start by the Knights in the second half.

Despite Houston leading by eight at the halftime break, the life preserver for UCF came midway through the first half, Sampson said.

Houston was up 32-18 with 6:13 left in the first half. Freshman forward Jarace Walker fouled UCF senior guard C.J. Kelly on a 3-point basket that he made. The shot cut UH’s lead to just 11. While Kelly missed the free throw, Sampson called it a key point early in the game.

“If you get a stop there, [we] got it going, the crowd is going, you’re up [14], you got a chance to go up 15. You don’t know what 15 does instead of nine,” Sampson said. “That was a six-point play, and that gave them life. When you’re on the road, you need life.”

The Knights not only grabbed the lifeline that was given to them, but they also pulled the Cougars down into the deep end with them.

Up to that point, Houston had managed to ride the red-hot wave of redshirt sophomore guard Tramon Mark. The Dickinson native scored a flurry of baskets, including two 3-pointers, which propelled the Cougars to a 12-2 run that was all sparked by a flagrant foul on UCF guard Darius Johnson.

The tough foul by Johnson gave Houston an extra spark, Mark said. UCF came out really physical to open the contest, and UH had to come out just as physical as the Knights, if not more, he added.

Mark scored 17 of his 19 points in the first half, which was a big reason why the Cougars held the double-digit edge over the Knights (10-4, 1-1 AAC). Mark also had six rebounds in the win.

“My teammates were finding me,” Mark said. “I just think that I was getting the right shots. I felt good. I had momentum. I was rolling with it in the first half.”

Despite the run, which ignited the Fertitta Center crowd, UCF found itself down just eight at the break and was able to open the second half with a 15-3 run that led to the Knights holding a 46-42 advantage.

The veteran and older team showed why they had a strong record entering the game, particularly on defense, Sampson said. UCF entered the matchup top 30 in the nation in field goal percentage defense, and the Knights displayed it on Saturday.

“They were clogging our pick and roll lanes and our guards weren’t being as aggressive attacking their big guys as we would like,” Sampson said. “That is something we have to continue to work on.”

After Houston tied the contest at 46, the battle between the Cougars and Knights turned into a long series of back-and-forths, which could best be described as a giant game of tug of war. Neither team wanted to let go of the rope in the fierce conference battle.

Down 54-52, Houston turned to junior big man J’Wan Roberts for offense. The U.S. Virgin Islands native went on a personal 8-0 run for the Cougars that gave them a six-point edge and ultimately was the difference between the two teams.

Roberts scored on a hook shot in the paint to tie the game. Then he followed it up with an encore performance, another hook shot, which this time included a free throw after a foul from UCF’s Laha Thioune.

Lastly, Roberts did what he does best. He got an offensive rebound, and then he got a second-chance layup while getting fouled again. Houston went up 60-54, and UCF could not come back, although it came within one at the 2:52 mark in the second half.

The Cougars managed to weather the storm and come away with the win. Roberts finished the game with 12 points and five rebounds.

“They had a lot of momentum when they took the lead,” Houston guard Marcus Sasser said.

Sasser, who ended the game with 18 points of his own, said the team’s experience from previous games, including its only loss of the season to Alabama, helped Houston overcome UCF’s rally.

“Just really us not getting too down and staying the course and just fighting [was key],” Sasser said. “Really just trying to win every possession and come out with the win [was the mindset].”

In the past, Sampson has said there are always commas with his team because they are constantly growing. Houston enters 2023 off the heels of a strong victory that it hopes only makes it better. With two months of the season down, the Cougars have roughly three more months to keep improving.

“We were really good to start the game today,” Sampson said. “Right now, I feel like I’m in a boat with holes in it. I get one hole plugged up, [and] here comes another hole. I got to go get two-and-a-half month’s worth of Gorilla glue.”

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