Inside the Houston Cougars basketball team’s halftime rally against Auburn in NCAA Tournament

Houston Cougars guard Marcus Sasser (0) takes the court as Auburn Tigers take on Houston Cougars in the second round of NCAA Tournament at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Ala., on Saturday, March 18, 2023. Houston Cougars defeated Auburn Tigers 81-64.

Inside the Houston Cougars basketball team’s halftime rally against Auburn in NCAA Tournament

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When the Houston Cougars basketball team got into the locker room at halftime during its game against the Auburn Tigers on Saturday evening, there was no yelling, no flipping tables, no tipping over coolers, no throwing clipboards, no punching walls, only self-reflection.

One-seed Houston knew the effort it had put out for the first 20 minutes against nine-seed Auburn wasn’t good enough. The Tigers had just put up 41 points on 16-of-29 shooting. UH had only forced two turnovers.

“We knew what we was doing wrong. It starts with us,” Houston Cougars forward J’Wan Roberts told Gallery Sports. “I feel like we was beating ourselves at first. Not playing up to our level, and second half we just adjusted.”

Instead of screaming, Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson checked the team, senior guard Marcus Sasser said. UH’s strategy against Auburn didn’t change, junior guard Jamal Shead added.

There were no secret plays that got drawn up or anything convoluted like that. The Cougars kept their same defense and ran the same offensive plays, but what UH did tweak were its mentality and execution, Roberts said.

“One thing we do in this program is hold each other accountable, so [Sampson] just told us we got to change our attitude,” Sasser said. “You know, we got leaders on the team that talked to each other, and we just got each other back up.”

The Cougars’ goal coming out of halftime facing a 41-31 deficit was simple — get one stop. One thing Houston always talks about when it is down is to chip away, Sasser stated.

“I knew we could play better,” Sampson said. “We’ve been down. We’ve been down 9-0 or 11-0 to Virginia, if I’m not mistaken. Last year I know we were down 11-0 to UCF. You know, people that panic aren’t coaches. They have nothing invested.

“We are the ones in the arena fighting, sweating, and bleeding. So it is just staying the course. If it was a 20-minute game, we probably would have been in trouble, but last time I checked, it is a 40-minute game. Last 20 minutes, you saw who we are.”

When the second half began, Houston played tough defense for 26 seconds. The ball got into the hands of Auburn sophomore forward Johni Broome, who gave UH fits throughout the game, but on this possession, it was the Cougars that forced him to miss a layup.

Roberts secured the defensive rebound, and just like that, Houston accomplished its first goal of the second half.

Then the Cougars pushed it up the other end of the floor. After several seconds ticked down, redshirt sophomore guard Tramon Mark got open for a layup. UH now was within eight at 41-33.

On the next Auburn possession, it was junior guard Wendell Green Jr. whose shot was erased by freshman forward Jarace Walker. It was one of six blocks by the New Freedom, Pennsylvania native. Both he and Roberts combined for 11 blocks against the Tigers.

A few seconds later, Walker stepped into his shot and buried a 3-pointer. It became a 41-36 deficit for the Cougars.

With the pedal on the gas at full speed, Houston succeeded at chipping away Auburn’s lead with an impressive pace. Sasser hit the big 3-pointer, giving UH its first lead of the second half at 46-45. Immediately after the shot, the Dallas native let out a scream of jubilation at his own bench. He and everyone on Houston’s team knew the momentum had shifted.

“When a lot of teams go through adversity, you know they go down 10 or 15, some teams tend to break apart,” Roberts said. “That’s not what we do. We come together. We find a way. We find a solution.”

While Houston seemed to be in the driver’s seat, an extra wrinkle of adversity was thrown into the mix. Sasser picked up his fourth foul of the game with 10:53 left in the second half. A couple of minutes later, Shead also picked up his fourth. The Cougars held just a 54-50 advantage.

Sampson called upon his two freshmen guards — Terrance Arceneaux and Emanuel Sharp — to step in for the two veterans. When the freshmen entered the game, Roberts called them over and gave them a simple message.

“Next man up,” Roberts recalled. “I told the freshmen when they came in, ‘it is time to win. Not to come in and be scared. We got our two best players on the bench, and it is time for you to step up. Just make plays, be comfortable, and let’s just win.’”

Arceneaux and Sharp more than held their own. Unlike stretches in Houston’s previous two games against Memphis in the American Athletic Conference championship game and Northern Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Auburn couldn’t get an advantage offensively on either of UH’s young guards.

Arceneaux and Sharp played key roles in the Cougars holding Auburn to just 4-of-24 shooting from the field in the second half.

For Houston, another guard stepped up as well. It was Mark, the sometimes forgotten face of UH’s three-headed monster of starting guards.

With both Sasser and Shead sidelined due to foul trouble, the Cougars’ offense turned into an isolation special for Mark. The Dickinson native was red-hot, and for the remaining eight minutes to end the game, he scored 18 of Houston’s final 35 points to put the Tigers away.

With Mark in the zone, he hit just about everything against Auburn. He excelled with his signature midrange pull-up jumpers. He got to the free-throw line eight different times and hit all of his attempts, and he also tracked down four rebounds. When it was all said and done, Mark ended the game with a new career-high of 26 points.

“I knew what I needed to do for us on the floor to get through the stretch,” Mark said. “I executed well. We basically just went iso. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s what coach wanted to do and we executed well … Coach trust in me, and I trust in myself. Everybody wanted me to have the ball in that situation. I did what I did and I am proud of myself.”

Toward the waning seconds of the game when it was clear Houston would come out victorious, Sampson and Mark got together in front of UH’s sideline. The head coach gave his guard a message.

“He said he was proud of me,” Mark said. “He said, well, I ain’t going to tell you what else he said, but he was proud of me.”

After a friendly plea by reporters to know what else Sampson told him, Mark obliged.

“He said I am a mother-[you can guess the rest],” Mark said.

With the 81-64 win, the Houston Cougars advanced to their fourth consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance in the NCAA Tournament dating back to 2019. There was no tournament in 2020.

Houston will play the winner of four-seed Indiana and five-seed Miami from the T-Mobile Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, on Friday.

Until then, the Cougars will enjoy a few extra days of rest. Sasser, who came into the game battling a groin injury, said he did not get too banged up against Auburn, but he did feel some discomfort probably about two times during the game.

“That is real big, you know, get to go back home,” Sasser told Gallery Sports about the upcoming off days. “Get treatment, rest our legs, and I think it just helps all of us. We all got nix and bruises, so just going back home and having that extra time off is going to help us a lot.”

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