Mar 18, 2023; Birmingham, AL, USA; Houston Cougars guard Tramon Mark (12) drives into Auburn Tigers forward Jaylin Williams (2) during the first half at Legacy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The Houston Cougars basketball team’s heart and determination were put to the test by Auburn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. UH passed.
Behind a career night from redshirt sophomore guard Tramon Mark, the Cougars overcame a double-digit halftime deficit to beat the Auburn Tigers, 81-64, and advance to their fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Nine-seed Auburn, playing in front of a quasi-home environment with plenty of orange at Legacy Arena, was hitting on all cylinders in the first half. Meanwhile, 1-seed Houston looked a step behind, jumping on pump fakes, fouling the Tigers, and giving up open baskets.
The Tigers ended the first half on a 19-6 run that left the Cougars facing a 41-31 deficit at halftime. It was only the third time UH had surrendered 40 or more points to an opponent in the first half all season.
Coming out of the break, Houston looked locked in. It scored on its first four possessions with 3-pointers from freshman forward Jarace Walker and senior guard Marcus Sasser. Junior guard Jamal Shead and redshirt sophomore guard Tramon Mark also hit baskets early to begin the second half.
Even though Houston missed four shots, it got four offensive rebounds on those same possessions, which allowed the Cougars to get second-chance baskets. The Cougars also battened down the hatches on defense. UH outscored Auburn 15-5 to open the second half. That only grew throughout the period.
Sasser, who came into the game battling a groin injury, showed no signs of weakness throughout the game. The Dallas native starred for Houston. He hit a step-back 3-pointer, giving UH its first lead of the second half at 46-45. After every made 3-pointer, he let out a scream of excitement and often times looked at Houston’s bench.
It was Mark, however, who played a pivotal role for Houston. He had an excellent offensive showing as he hit his signature pull-up midrange jumpers to balance Sasser’s performance.
Mark scored 18 of Houston’s final 35 points to carry the Cougars offensively. The Dickinson native helped get UH to the finish line with both Shead and Sasser on the sidelines.
Sasser came out of the game with 10:53 left in the second half. Shead came out of the game with 8:22 left in the second half. Both had four fouls when they came out. Both did not return to the game until the 3:37 mark in the period.
Mark ended the night with 26 points, a career-high, and nine rebounds. Sasser had 22 points.
Ultimately, the game came down to free throw shooting. Auburn missed 17 shots from the charity stripe. Houston went 24-of-29 from the free-throw line. UH outscored Auburn 50-23 in the second half. The Cougars held the Tigers to just 4-of-24 shooting from the field in the final period.
Houston Cougars basketball will play the winner of 4-seed Indiana versus 5-seed Miami in Kansas City, Missouri, in the Sweet Sixteen. Those two teams will play at 7:40 p.m. on Sunday evening.