What the best looks like: Houston Cougars men’s basketball shines in mudhole win against St. Mary’s

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Kevin M Cox/AP/Shutterstock (13642829r) Houston forward Reggie Chaney is defended by Norfolk State guard Daryl Anderson (13) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, in Houston Norfolk St Basketball, Houston, United States – 29 Nov 2022

What the best looks like: Houston Cougars men’s basketball shines in mudhole win against St. Mary’s

FORT WORTH — Over the summer, the Houston Cougars men’s basketball team struggled to get an opponent to agree to play against them in The Battleground 2K22 event at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth.

The multi-team event, which included a game between Texas A&M and Boise State as an opening act, needed an opponent to headline against Houston. In came St. Mary’s of the West Coast Conference, who accepted an invitation to play the Cougars in August, much later than most agreements, head coach Randy Bennett told reporters in a postgame news conference on Saturday.

“The purpose for us was to go see what the best looks like,” Bennett said.

“We wanted to see them. We wanted to play against them.”

No. 1 Houston (8-0) and head coach Kelvin Sampson have earned a lot of respect around the country, Bennett added. The Cougars are fast and quick in all facets of the game. They play hard. And when the ball is on the floor, they are going to get it, the St. Mary’s coach stated.

“You can feel it. You can see it. It’s the way it should be. [Sampson] takes no [bull] from his guys,” Bennett said.

When the Cougars stepped onto the court on Saturday night against the Gaels, they could not hit their shots at as strong a rate as they did on Tuesday against Norfolk State. Houston’s field goal shooting was just 21-of-57, or 36.8%.

As has become the norm for Sampson’s programs, UH hung its hat on defense. Despite struggling to shoot the ball from the field, the Cougars locked down the Gaels and forced St. Mary’s into as bad of a shooting night as they had.

St. Mary’s hit only 17-of-46 shots and also turned the ball over 17 times. Something Bennett said hurt the Gaels tremendously against Houston. Heading into the matchup, his biggest worry was figuring out how his team was going to score against No. 1 Houston, he added. The Gaels were unable to score enough.

“You have to grind them down to get a good shot,” Bennett said. “They are not just going to give you a good shot. They are not going to give you transition, and they can erase their mistakes too. They got good rim protection.”

Sampson said postgame that Saturday’s meeting was a duel between two good defensive teams.

“We are a really good defensive team, and they are a really good defensive team, and I kind of thought the game would look like that going in,” Sampson said. “I thought that we could guard them. I thought that they struggled against us defensively. I knew this wasn’t going to be no 75-point game. You don’t score 75 points on us, and you don’t score 75 points on them.”

The result of the two defensive-minded teams was a 53-48 slugfest, or as Sampson put it, a mudhole game.

Two players that rose to the occasion for Houston in Saturday’s game were forward J’Wan Roberts and center Reggie Chaney. Roberts led UH in scoring with 15 points and added eight rebounds.

Chaney had eight points, four rebounds, and one emphatic block on Gaels’ big man Mitchell Saxen in the closing moments of the game that kept St. Mary’s from cutting Houston’s five-point lead to three with less than five seconds left in the contest.

“Those are the games I look forward to cause I feel like I just want to help the team,” Chaney said. “That is all I care about. Like [Sampson] said, I don’t care if I am starting, I just want to help the team where I feel like where we need help.”

Houston had one injury moment toward the end of the game. Guard Marcus Sasser, who racked up 13 points on 4-of-12 shooting and four assists for the Cougars, did not return to the game after leaving with 1:10 left in the second half. He had his shoulder pop out and then pop back in, Sampson said.

When asked if it is a long-term concern for Houston, the head coach’s answer was simple.

“He’ll be fine,” Sampson said.

One area Houston did not win against St. Mary’s was the rebounding battle. The Gaels out-rebounded the Cougars 36-27 for the game. It is something Sampson said is an area of weakness for UH.

“This is not a great rebounding team,” he stated. “I’ve had some great rebounding teams over the years. This team is not. We are going to continue to work at it, hopefully, we get better at it, but it is not a great rebounding team, but it is a great defensive team.”

As it did against Kent State, Houston found a way to win despite struggling offensively. With Roberts and Chaney shining against the Gaels, Sampson pointed out that not everyone is made to excel in those gritty, hard-nosed, defensive games.

Chaney, however, was built for it.

“Not everybody can play in a mudbath,” Sampson said. “You know, bloodbath. A mudhole game. Reggie is pretty good in playing in mudhole games.”

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