Houston, Tx—The last few weeks the Houston Cougars has been playing great basketball on both sides of the ball. This year they confidence exudes all over the hardwood.
Tyler Harris torched the Cougars for a career-high 31 points Wednesday night, but they fell a little short as the University of South Florida loss 83-77 to No. 1 Houston. The Cougars’ Marcus Sasser poured in 31 points as well for the scarlet and white.
The No. 1-ranked team in the country also entered the night also as the top-ranked scoring defense (51.5 ppg) and defensive field goal unit (33.2 %).
Tramon Mark scored 13 points for the Cougars (17-1, 5-0 American Athletic Conference), which won its eighth straight game.
“My teammates were telling me it’s time step up,” Sasser said. “They were trying to get me going, giving me confidence. Being a senior on the team, being a leader, I’ve kind of seen it all. When you have good teammates, they trust you with the ball and feel like you can change the game.”
It was another hard-fought battle and a tough loss for South Florida (7-10, 0-4 AAC) as the Bulls have lost four straight conference games by a combined 21 points. Houston improves to 17-1 (5-0 AAC).
Harris got the party started with back-to-back threes, Sasser and the Cougars traded three-point baskets on five straight trips down the court. Harris’ second knotted the score at 12-12 at the 14:12 mark.
The Bulls were on fire from the hardwood early, freshman Ryan Conwell got into the mix and hit a deep three for a 19-17 lead with 10:20 on the clock.
Houston forced USF into 18 total turnovers, including 11 in the second half. However, South Florida posted the highest field goal percentage of the season for any Houston opponent at 48.9%. They were 10 of 21 on 3-pointers for the night.
The Cougars settled down and found its shooting touch scored 10 straight points to go up 37-26 with 2:50 left in the half. The Bulls answered right back with 10 consecutive points of their own, including five points from Harris to trim Houston’s lead to 37-36 at the break.
In the second half, Russel Tchewa scored five straight points for the Bulls and a pair of free throws by Bryant gave USF their biggest lead of the night, 53- 48, with 13:38 left to play.
Houston roared back with another 10-point run over the next two minutes to reclaim a 58-53 lead. In that time frame USF committed five turnovers and went without a field goal over an eight-minute span. The Cougars eventually built a double-digit lead with 6:59 left to play in the game.
Jamir Chapin drained a three-pointer with 1:11 left on the clock to cut Houston lead to 74-68, but the Cougars played solid defense the rest of the way.
“Tip your hat to Houston and Sasser, who was the Preseason Player of the Year, and they needed that type of effort out of him tonight,” said USF head coach Brian Gregory. “I was proud of our fight and toughness all night. We did a good job on the glass and withstood some blows at different points of the game. We adjusted both defensively and offensively tonight in some of our sets to matchup against Houston, and I give our guys a lot of credit for great execution. The turnover number was too high again in this game, but Houston is the best defensive team in the country. However, it’s something we’ve seen become a problem for us lately in these close losses. If we can continue to compete at that level throughout the rest of our conference schedule, we’ll get some good results.”
Houston shot 42%, including 11 of 27 from downtown. The Cougars forced South Florida into 18 turnovers and converted those into 13 points.
The Cougars won the rebounding battle in the first half, 21-16, but USF controlled the glass in the second half with a20-9 edge.
Harris continued to stack the stat sheet over the final minute and one more trey by Chaplin at the buzzer accounted for the final score.
Houston coach Kelvin Sampson appreciated his team’s toughness during a less-than-stellar performance.
“We’ve had a lot of nights where we’ve played poorly and won over the years, but it’s a beautiful win,” Sampson said. “That game was a thing of beauty. Get the win and go home.”
The teams combined for 45 fouls. Houston shot 22 of 32 from the charity stripe line, led by Sasser, who was 11 of 14. USF were 21 of 27 from the line, with Tchewa going 8 of 9.
South Florida: At East Carolina on Sunday, Jan. 15th.
Houston: At Tulane on Jan. 17.