No. 3 Houston Cougars basketball overcomes second-half rally by UCF to top Knights, 71-65

Mandatory Credit: Photo by David J Phillip/AP/Shutterstock (13690106d) Houston’s Tramon Mark (12) looks to pass the ball as Central Florida’s Ithiel Horton defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, in Houston UCF Basketball, Houston, United States – 31 Dec 2022

No. 3 Houston Cougars basketball overcomes second-half rally by UCF to top Knights, 71-65

The Houston Cougars basketball team escaped a strong second-half performance by Central Florida on Saturday afternoon to come out victorious, 71-65.

UCF used a 15-4 run to get back into the game in the second half, which saw the Cougars (14-1, 2-0 American Athletic) lead by as many as 14 points. The run turned the outing into a boxing match between two sluggers looking to land the knockout blow on their conference opponent. Ultimately, it was Houston that outlasted UCF at home.

After the Knights managed to go up by four in the second period, Houston guard Jamal Shead forced sophomore guard Darius Johnson to turn the ball over. The next possession turned into two free throws for Walker, which he hit. Houston then got a stop against UCF and turned it into a jumper in the paint for guard Marcus Sasser that tied the game at 46. From that point on, it was a battle of big shots between the two programs.

With the Fertitta Center crowd chanting defense, Houston forced UCF senior guard C.J. Kelly into a traveling violation. The Cougars were unable to turn the takeaway into a basket. The Knights responded by building a 49-46 advantage until Shead hit a 3-pointer to tie it back up. A free throw by Francis gave Houston a one-point edge, but UCF continued to find answers.

A layup from UCF senior guard Ithiel Horton gave the Knights the 51-50 edge. A Francis dunk gave the lead back to Houston. A 3-pointer from Horton gave UCF a two-point lead, and the back-and-forth between the two teams continued.

A hook shot in the post by Houston redshirt junior forward J’Wan Roberts tied the game at 54 and was the start of a personal 8-0 run from the native of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Another hook shot from Roberts, this time accompanied by a foul on UCF senior big man Lahat Thioune gave Houston a three-point edge, and then another and-one layup by Roberts made it 60-54.

UCF, however, did not go away quietly. It was able to end Houston’s run with an absurd turn of events following a 3-point shot by forward Taylor Hendricks. He missed the shot so bad it hit the top of the backboard, but it bounced right into the hands of Michael Durr, who hit it just perfectly to bounce it off the glass and in to make it 60-56 with 5:11 left in the second half.

The Knights cut the Cougars’ lead to just two again with a steal and a slam dunk and eventually got within one, but it was Houston that was able to seal the game down the stretch.

The first half was a completely different story. It was the Tramon Mark show for much of the opening period. The half flipped on its head when Central Florida sophomore guard Darius Johnson was called for a flagrant foul one against Mark.

Johnson pushed Mark down while he was down on the floor at the 12:42 mark in the first half. UCF held a small lead over Houston that had just been cut down to one after an impressive turnaround jumper by sophomore big man Ja’Vier Francis made it 12-11.

The flagrant foul ignited the crowd inside the Fertitta Center, and it gave Mark two free throws and Houston the ball. The Dickinson native hit both free throws and then he started seeing red. He hit a 3-pointer just a few seconds later.

A few possessions later, Mark came down the floor and hit another 3-point basket from the corner.

Mark got the ball again on Houston’s next possession, and this time he attacked the heart of UCF’s defense and dished it out to Francis for an easy slam dunk. The Cougars went on a 12-2 run following the flagrant foul, which put them from down one to up by nine in just three minutes of game time on the floor.

Houston hovered around a 10-point cushion the rest of the way to end the period, but UCF came out firing on all cylinders in the second half to make it a slobber knocker of a game.

Mark led all scorers with 19 points, and he also had six rebounds. Sasser had 18 points on 7-of-20 shooting from the field. Roberts had 12 points and five rebounds.

With the win, Houston has a chance to move up The Associated Press and USA Today coaches polls after No. 2 Connecticut fell to Xavier on Saturday.

The Houston Cougars basketball team next returns to action inside the Fertitta Center when it hosts SMU at 6 p.m. on Thursday.

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