How Emanuel Sharp’s 3-pointers were a lifeline for Houston Cougars basketball against Northern Kentucky in NCAA Tournament

Mar 16, 2023; Birmingham, AL, USA; Houston Cougars guard Emanuel Sharp (21) knocks the ball away from Northern Kentucky Norse guard Xavier Rhodes (11) during the first half in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at Legacy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

How Emanuel Sharp’s 3-pointers were a lifeline for Houston Cougars basketball against Northern Kentucky in NCAA Tournament

BIRMINGHAM, Ala — The Houston Cougars basketball team desperately needed a spark against Northern Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament before redshirt freshman guard Emanuel Sharp knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers. UH ultimately prevailed, 63-52.

Senior guard Marcus Sasser had shut things down at halftime after aggravating his groin injury in the first half. The Norse, meanwhile, were exactly where they wanted to be. After a Thursday that had already seen a 15-seed top a 2-seed and a 13-seed overthrow a 4-seed, why couldn’t a 16-seed dethrone a 1-seed? NKU smelled blood in the water against Houston and tried to capitalize on it.

“I don’t coach Northern Kentucky, but I was proud of their team tonight,” Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson told reporters after the game. “They fought. They are well-coached. Their kids were tough, they are smart, they are old. They got a bunch of grad kids, seniors, older guys. I was impressed.”

The Norse did a good job at out Houston-ing the Cougars. They finished the game with 18 offensive rebounds, 21 second-chance points, and 13 points off turnovers by forcing UH to commit an uncharacteristic 17 turnovers, which was spearheaded by the Norse’s unique matchup zone.

“Offensive rebounding, turnovers, I feel like they wanted the rebounds more than us, and they spread us up. We wasn’t ready for it,” Houston junior forward J’Wan Roberts told Gallery Sports.

As time ticked down in the second half, NKU trailed by only three points with less than 12 minutes remaining in the game. The Cougars (32-3) needed a lifeline after having just given up a layup to Northern Kentucky sophomore guard Sam Vinson.

Houston came down the other end of the floor and got the ball inside to Roberts. He skipped a pass across to Sharp, who stepped into his shot and let go of his long-distance attempt. Sharp was dead-on with his 3-pointer. UH led by six.

Northern Kentucky went down the other end of the court and missed a 3-pointer of its own. Houston pushed to its side of the court, and the ball found the hands of Sharp again, who shot it without hesitation. The bright orange basketball found the bottom of the net inside Legacy Arena for the second time in a row. And just like that, the Cougars had a nine-point cushion.

“It gave us life,” Sharp said. “I feel like we were drained a little bit throughout the whole game, but that picked us up.”

Sharp, who played in his first NCAA Tournament game ever on Thursday, seemed like a seasoned veteran against the Norse. When it was all said and done, he had 10 crucial points that helped lift UH past Northern Kentucky, 63-52.

It never seems like the moment is too big for Sharp. His confidence has been one of his biggest attributes since he stepped foot on campus, Sasser told Gallery Sports. Thursday was no different.

“That was big time,” Sasser said. “I feel like that is what helped us get that lead and helped us get that run. We just built off that. He is a freshman, but he was made for the moment. He was built for the moment.”

While Sharp’s two shots played a crucial role in Houston’s win, both Roberts and freshman forward Jarace Walker were also instrumental in the victory. Walker had 16 points and six rebounds against Northern Kentucky.

Roberts had 11 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists for Houston.

“J’Wan is probably the only guy I thought who played hard-nosed, tough Cougars basketball, but we live to fight another day,” Sampson said. “And that’s what this is all about this time of year. I’m proud of our guys for winning.”

Houston will play against 9-seed Auburn at approximately 6:10 p.m. CT on Saturday. The Tigers beat Iowa in their first-round game with a plethora of Auburn fans in attendance.

Between now and then, UH will be looking to see if their two starting guards will be available to go. Sasser aggravated his groin injury against Northern Kentucky and did not play in the second half. He said he would be going through a lot of rehab and treatment to try to be ready.

Junior guard Jamal Shead also hurt his right knee against the Norse. The Manor native said he hyperextended it during the game but that it had not swollen up.

“We’ll go regroup, see how many bodies we have for Saturday, and see who’s available and go play,” Sampson said.

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