Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ron Jenkins/AP/Shutterstock (13810981k) Houston forward Jarace Walker (25) watches his 3- point basket attempt against Cincinnati during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament, in Fort Worth, Texas AAC Cincinnati Houston Basketball, Fort Worth, United States – 11 Mar 2023
FORT WORTH — The Houston Cougars basketball team knew that it did not live up to its culture against East Carolina in the American Athletic Conference Tournament quarterfinals.
So when UH got back to its hotel on Friday evening, the team talked to each other and held each other accountable, junior forward J’Wan Roberts said. Head coach Kelvin Sampson spoke with some of the players individually, and then they met as a team. The message was received, as UH won 69-48 on Saturday over Cincinnati.
“I feel like we were kind of offensive-minded yesterday, which is not how we play,” Roberts said. “When we focus on what we value in practice, I feel like that’s when we get off to an early lead and good start like we did today.”
What the Cougars talked about during their conversation revolved around making adjustments, Roberts said. The message amongst each other was clear: they cannot get off to another start like they did against the Pirates or they would be upset, Roberts added.
Against Cincinnati in the AAC Tournament semifinals, the Cougars (31-2) got off to a blazing hot start. UH jumped out to an early 17-7 lead and never looked back.
The first play of the game was called for Roberts, who struggled tremendously from the field against ECU. Sampson made sure Roberts got the first play of the game to get him going, he said.
Houston’s game plan against Cincinnati revolved around Roberts and freshman forward Jarace Walker. Roberts ended the game with 16 points and eight rebounds. Walker had 13 points and eight rebounds. UH outscored Cincinnati 38-12 in the paint.
“I thought our discipline and our game plan was really good, and it centered around these two guys,” Sampson said. “You know, one from the left, one from the right, we tried to give them space to get to where they needed to get to.
“But they are unselfish. And they both are willing passers. Neither one really plays to the crowd. And then the rebounding. Things that we traditionally are pretty good at, we defend, we rebound [were key].”
The orchestrator behind it all was junior point guard Jamal Shead, who had 16 points and nine assists. Both Roberts and Walker had high praise for him after the game. The Manor native also had to step up after senior guard Marcus Sasser went down with a groin injury in the first half.
Shead excelled throughout the game, dissecting Cincinnati’s defense and getting into the paint. Once the Bearcats’ defense collapsed, he found his teammates and set them up for easy baskets, such as an alley-oop to Walker toward the end of the second half.
“His playmaking makes the game so easy for us,” Walker said. [He] puts us in the right spot. Gets us the ball where we want it, when we want it. He’s the perfect point guard, and I love the fact that he plays on both ends as well.”
For Houston, the next challenge will once again be against the Memphis Tigers. The two teams will meet for the third time in the last four weeks in Sunday’s AAC Tournament championship game.
The Cougars could be without Sasser, who Sampson said they would err on the side of caution with when it comes to his health. A source with knowledge of the team told Gallery Sports that Sasser is dealing with a lot of pain in his groin and that he is struggling with lateral movement.
It is not yet clear what Sasser’s status will be. Sampson told reporters in the news conference they are still evaluating his injury.
“The most important thing is Marcus,” Sampson said. “Not winning. It will always be the case with me. His health going forward is the most important thing here.”