Overcoming an uphill battle: Houston Cougars basketball winning DNA helps power UH over Wichita State

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Phelan M Ebenhack/AP/Shutterstock (13744223hy) Houston forward Jarace Walker (25) argues with an official after getting called for a foul during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Central Florida, in Orlando, Fla Houston UCF Basketball, Orlando, United States – 25 Jan 2023

Overcoming an uphill battle: Houston Cougars basketball winning DNA helps power UH over Wichita State

It wasn’t always pretty for the Houston Cougars basketball team on Thursday night inside the Charles Koch Arena against Wichita State, but in the end, UH found a way to win, 70-61.

No. 3 Houston struggled to score, but if you asked Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson what the team’s biggest issue was against the Shockers, he would say it was the team’s performance on the glass with rebounds, especially from his freshman forward Jarace Walker.

“We seemed like we were climbing uphill a lot and give Wichita State credit. They played well,” Sampson told reporters after the game.

In particular, Sampson pointed out the performance of Walker, who, despite finishing with 15 points against Wichita State on Thursday, shot 6-of-15 from the field and only had five rebounds, including 0 offensive boards.

“Tonight, he struggled,” Sampson stated. “Decision-making was poor. His rebounding was poor. I thought his toughness wasn’t where we need it.”

Coming off a game where Walker looked like a man-child against Cincinnati, Sampson said that his performance against the Shockers was a reminder that as talented as his forward is, he is still a freshman.

“There is not a lot of in-between with Jarace,” Sampson said. “He’s either really good, or he is off, but that is what freshmen do. Freshmen have a hard time understanding how to impact winning.”

Houston as a team struggled to hit shots from the field, and one of the most frustrating things about Thursday was that many of them were open looks, Sampson stated.

During timeouts, he said he encouraged his players to keep taking them. The Cougars were getting good looks; they just were not falling.

Despite struggling offensively and on the boards throughout the night, Houston battened down the hatches in the final six minutes of the outing. The Cougars outscored the Shockers 19-6 in the final 6:11 to end the game, and got big plays from various players, including Walker.

“When it came winning time, I think our DNA kicked in,” Sampson said. “We know how to win, and there is a lot to be said about that.”

Earlier in the game, Sampson said the New Freedom, Pennsylvania native was too hesitant to take open shots, which was hurting the team.

“I didn’t think he was making good basketball decisions,” the head coach said. “You can’t be afraid to shoot the right shot whether you missed the one prior to that or not. The right shot is to shoot it, but you know the good thing is that his teammates were getting on him in the huddle. I didn’t have to say a word.”

Walker’s teammates told the freshman when he is open, he needs to shoot it, Sampson added. When it came to crunchtime, he did.

Walker hit back-to-back 3-pointers, first to tie the game and then to give Houston a 57-54 lead that it never relinquished.

Besides Walker, three players that played key roles in Houston’s victory were redshirt sophomore guard Tramon Mark, senior big man Reggie Chaney and junior forward J’Wan Roberts, Sampson said.

“I thought Tramon Mark, Reggie Chaney, J’Wan, when he went back in, [played well]. J’Wan going out hurt our rebounding because he is by far our best rebounder,” Sampson stated. “When he went out, we didn’t rebound the ball very good, but that is also because Jarace was a little bit of a tuxedo player tonight. Looked really good on the outside, wasn’t a whole lot on the inside.”

Now the Cougars will have a quick turnaround to Temple on Sunday. Houston returned to the city in the early morning hours on Friday and will fly out again to Philadelphia on Saturday for Sunday’s contest.

The Owls are the lone American Athletic Conference foe to beat the Cougars (21-2, 9-1 AAC) this season.

“It’s a quick turnaround,” Sampson said.

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