KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The next stop for Houston’s resurrected basketball program is the Big 12.
The Cougars would’ve preferred it to be the Elite Eight.
The lone No. 1 seed left in the NCAA Tournament after Alabama fell to San Diego State about 30 minutes earlier, the Cougars simply couldn’t overcome a 3-point barrage from Nijel Pack, the rebounding of Norchad Omier and some dazzling offense from Miami’s talented backcourt in an 89-75 loss Friday night.
Sasser had 14 points but missed an open 3 early in the second half, when the Cougars made their only big run of the night against the fifth-seeded Hurricanes.
Tramon Mark also had 14 points, but eight of them came on three straight possessions early in the game. Jamal Shead tried to put the Cougars on his back, scoring 15, but many of those came with the game already out of reach.
It was a frustrating end to a season spent strutting around the top of the AP Top 25.
The problems began when Houston was trailing 40-36 and a foul sent Miami’s Isaiah Wong to the line with 4 seconds to go in the first half — he made both to extend the lead. And while the 50-50 call was enough to get Houston coach Kelvin Sampson plenty upset, it was the no-call when Mark was whacked on the wrist on a 3-point try as the buzzer sounded that left the polarizing 67-year-old coach on the verge of a technical foul from referee Brian O’Connell.
Shead tried to rally Houston in the second half, closing within 49-45 on his basket with about 16 minutes to go. But that’s when Sasser missed badly on a 3-point try that would would have pulled the Cougars within a point, and Jordan Miller’s right-place, right-time putback of Wong’s missed 3 at the other end had Miami in control again.
The Hurricanes quickly stretched the lead to 17 points before cruising to Sunday’s game in the Elite Eight.
That big lead? Too much for a team that had overcome plenty in the last couple of weeks.
There was Sasser, struggling with a groin injury sustained in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, riding the bench for the second half of their NCAA Tournament opener against Northern Kentucky. Yet the Cougars got 16 points from potential one-and-done forward Jarace Walker while shutting down the upstart Norse to escape with a 63-52 victory.
With Sasser closer to healthy for a second-round game against Auburn, the Cougars nevertheless dug a 41-31 halftime hole. Yet their senior leader found a way to pour in 22 points, Houston turned up its relentless defense, and they outscored the Tigers 50-23 after the break in coasting to an 81-64 victory and a fourth straight trip to the Sweet 16.
That’s where their season ended — unlike the previous two years, when they went to the Elite Eight and the Final Four.
The Cougars are no doubt looking toward a bright future in the Big 12, where they will begin play next season. After all, the same program that had been to two NCAA Tournaments since Guy Lewis ended his Hall of Fame coaching career in 1986 has now made it to five straight, winning a game in each and making the second weekend in the past four.
But it’s also the end of an era for Houston.
Sasser and Reggie Chaney, who were crucial cogs in their Final Four team that lost to Baylor in the COVID-19 bubble in Indianapolis two years ago, will never suit up for the Cougars again. It’s also possible that Walker, who some believe will be an NBA lottery pick, played his final game for Houston on Friday night.
As the final seconds ticked away, the sixth-seeded Hurricanes spilled off the bench in the T-Mobile Center to celebrate. And slowly and stoically, Sasser led the Cougars back to the locker room one last time.
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