Mandatory Credit: Photo by Emil Lippe/AP/Shutterstock (13648305g) Houston guard Marcus Sasser (0) and forward Reggie Chaney (32) defend against Saint Mary’s guard Aidan Mahaney (20) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Fort Worth, Texas Saint Marys Houston Basketball, Fort Worth, United States – 03 Dec 2022
FORT WORTH — The No. 1 Houston Cougars men’s basketball team got an early taste of an NCAA Tournament game feel on Saturday against St. Mary’s. UH, behind a strong night from forward J’Wan Roberts, defeated the Gaels 53-48.
Houston (8-0) initially played catch-up against St. Mary’s in the first half. The Gaels led by as many as four points a couple of times in the first half, led by guard Logan Johnson, who scored 10 of the Gaels’ first 17 points, but it was not enough as Houston eventually took the lead and control of the game and was able to hold off St. Mary’s.
Roberts starred for the Cougars offensively, scoring 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting and securing eight rebounds. Houston went to Roberts in the post at various points in the game when it needed a basket.
The Cougars methodically clawed their way into tying the game in the first half, never letting St. Mary’s (6-3) get too far in front or too comfortable, and eventually built a comfortable cushion before the halftime break.
With the game tied at 17, guard Marcus Sasser put UH in front for good with a layup. It was followed by an impressive block from forward Ja’Vier Francis, who sent St. Mary’s center Mitchell Saxen’s shot flying in the first row of fans at Dickies Arena. That block was followed by a 3-pointer by guard Jamal Shead on the other end of the court.
Forward J’Wan Roberts made a basket; then it was guard Tramon Mark who added a jumper. Roberts scored again, and after a few free throws from Sasser and Roberts, Houston led 31-20 at the break.
As is the identity with Sampson’s teams, Houston’s 9-0 run to close the half was fueled by defense. A steal by Roberts on one possession and another by Mark on a different possession show up on the stat sheet, but Houston overall held St. Mary’s to just 1-of-12 shooting from the field to end the half.
On one possession in the first half, Shead deflected a pass that went right back to St. Mary’s, and he immediately started clapping his hands in excitement.
The Gaels made a couple of runs in the second half, including scoring five straight points to open the period up, but Houston was able to answer each one. UH answered St. Mary’s first 5-0 run with a 10-5 run of its own to build back its 11-point lead.
St. Mary’s did not go away quietly, however, making another run and cutting the Cougars’ lead to just three points with 6:31 left in the second half on a 3-point basket by Aidan Mahaney, but as it was for most of the night, UH turned to Roberts for a basket to put Houston up by five.
Sasser hit another layup to give Houston a 50-43 lead, and St. Mary’s could not rally. The Cougars’ identity showed out again on a play in the closing seconds. With only five seconds left in the contest and Houston up five, center Reggie Chaney blocked a layup attempt by Saxen to keep the Gaels from scoring.
Sasser did not finish the game after he was taken out of the contest in the closing minutes. Head athletic trainer John Houston was working on his shoulder on the bench.
Houston returns to action on Tuesday against North Florida at Fertitta Center. The game will tip off at 7 p.m. and air on ESPN+.