March Madness 2023: Houston endures despite setbacks, now halfway to hometown Final Four

It didn’t matter that Houston had to play a virtual road game. Or that two of the Cougars’ best players were hampered by injuries and foul trouble.

Kelvin Sampson’s tough, tenacious team refused to become the latest upset victim in this year’s unpredictable NCAA men's tournament.

Staring at a 10-point deficit when the second half began, top-seeded Houston responded to a challenge from its coach to dial up its defensive effort. The Cougars surged into the lead and methodically squeezed the life out of ninth-seeded Auburn en route to an 81-64 comeback victory and a berth in a fourth straight Sweet 16.

Auburn failed to score a single basket for a 10-minute second-half stretch and managed only four total field goals after halftime. Prized Houston freshman Jarace Walker and fellow forward J’Wan Roberts anchored the Cougars’ interior defense, combining for 11 of their team’s 12 blocked shots.

With first-team All-American Marcus Sasser battling a lingering groin injury and point guard Jamal Shead coping with a balky knee, junior guard Tramon Mark picked up the offensive slack. Mark unleashed a career-high 26 points, nearly triple his season-long average, to help Houston regain the lead seven minutes into the second half and then pull away in the closing five minutes.

Had Houston lost, it would have marked the first time in NCAA tournament history that three No. 1 seeds failed to reach the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. Purdue became the second No. 1 to be waylaid by a No. 16 on Friday night and Kansas fell to eighth-seeded Arkansas on Saturday afternoon.

Marcus Sasser of the Houston Cougars talks with a coach during the first half against the Auburn Tigers on March 18. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Houston instead advanced within two victories of a Final Four appearance in their home city and set up an Sweet 16 matchup with either Indiana or Miami. A clash with the Hoosiers would pit Sampson against the program where he coached from 2006-08 before resigning amidst allegations of NCAA recruiting violations.

In some ways, Houston’s path to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend was more treacherous than other top seeds. The NCAA tournament selection committee gifted Auburn the chance to play close to home in Birmingham, turning the top-seeded Cougars’ second-round matchup into a true road game.

Asked on Friday if he expected a 90% pro-Auburn crowd, Sampson chuckled and said, “90%? I'm hoping 90.” Later in his pregame news conference, Sampson seized the opportunity to ask for the support of any Alabama fans who were inside Legacy Arena to watch the Crimson Tide take on Maryland in Saturday’s doubleheader nightcap.

“We need some help,” Sampson said with a smile. “Roll Tide!”

Judging from the roars after every Auburn basket on Friday, Sampson’s pitch didn’t win Houston many new supporters. The Legacy Arena crowd erupted as the halftime buzzer sounded when Auburn harassed Sasser into an off-balance airball to preserve a 10-point lead.

Houston emerged from halftime reenergized and methodically clawed its way back. Now the Cougars are halfway to a hometown Final Four.