There was little reason to expect anything other than a physical grudge match between the Houston Cougars and Memphis Tigers on Saturday in the second American Athletic Conference tournament semifinal in Fort Worth. And the combatants did not disappoint.
The seventh-ranked Cougars completed their second white-knuckle victory over the Tigers in less than a week, following their buzzer-beating win 76-74 on March 7.
Next up for Houston (23-3), the tournament’s second seed, is a Sunday date with the fifth-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats in the final.
Houston and Memphis had established themselves as the preeminent defensive teams in the conference, and the Cougars beating Memphis twice in seven days marked a test of endurance.
“Now we just move on,” Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson said. “We’ve got the championship game against a team that’s red hot, and we’ll get ready to play. Three games in three days.
“It’s not about your records or how you’re playing. Three games in three days, you can throw everything out of the window. It’s a survival game more than anything else.”
Houston will face Cincinnati (12-10) for the third consecutive time in the tournament final. The Bearcats claimed the two previous meetings to earn the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. Houston last won a conference tournament crown in 2010, when they were a member of Conference USA.
What the Cougars hope to glean from facing Memphis yet again is that their experience has value. The Cougars’ rotation features four seniors and a pair of juniors, including conference co-Player of the year Quentin Grimes. Their veterans have paid dividends.
“We’ve had some close games this year,” Sampson said. “When you can find a way to win your close ones, you’re on your way to having a really good year.”
Cincinnati continued its recent surge by upsetting top-seeded Wichita State 60-59 in the first semifinal. The Bearcats improved to 9-3 since a COVID-19 pause of more than three weeks in January. They will be playing in their fourth consecutive American Athletic Conference final, having lost to SMU in 2017.
Cincinnati played the second half on Saturday without senior guard Keith Williams, who scored nine points against the Shockers before missing the second half with an injury.
Forced to rely on their youth, the Bearcats overcame recording more turnovers (nine) than field goals (eight) in the second half. Adversity appears to no longer stymie Cincinnati.
“If you told me two months ago that this is where we were going to be, not that I wouldn’t believe it, but at that time it seemed far-fetched,” said Bearcats freshman guard Mason Madsen, whose 10 points led the team on Saturday.
“I think, going into that pause, it was like we can’t take anything for granted once we get back to playing, because I think there was a little bit of that going through the season, and it’s a long season for everyone,” Madsen said.
“Having that break refocused us on what was important. You’d be pressed to find a closer team, on and off the floor. It’s been really fun,” he added
It will be a chore for Cincinnati to maintain that attitude against the Cougars. In their previous meeting with Houston on Feb. 21, the host Bearcats lost by 38 points. Cincinnati has been undaunted of late, and it will need more of the same to claim the title.
“I’m really excited about not only how we’ve been playing, but I’m certainly excited about the challenge (Sunday),” coach John Brannen said.