PITTSBURGH — Once back in their locker room, Houston’s players emptied their water bottles on coach Kelvin Sampson, who peeled off his shirt for the celebratory dousing.
A sweet soaking indeed.
Taze Moore scored 21 points and Jamal Shead added 18 as the Cougars, a Final Four team last season, advanced in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament with a 68-53 win over Illinois, ousted in the opening weekend for the second straight year.
The fifth-seeded Cougars (31-5) are making another serious run at a national title despite losing their two best players to season-ending injuries. Now, with a trio of transfers and a defense with some serious teeth, they’re headed home to Texas for the next round – in San Antonio, against either Arizona or TCU.
“It’s our heart,” Shead said when asked about this team’s toughness. “We don’t want to lose. We want to win for each other. We love each other so much, these guys are like my brothers, you know, it goes way beyond basketball.
“We want to keep it going as long as we possibly can.”
Kyler Edwards added 15 points for Houston, a team often overlooked but making major noise again this March.
With Houston’s fans chanting “Sweet 16, Sweet 16” in the closing seconds, Edwards dropped one last 3-pointer from the corner and seconds later lifted Moore, another of Houston’s transfers, off the floor.
The Cougars faced major adversity in December when guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, two of the holdovers from last year’s talented squad, were lost to injuries. But instead of folding, Houston’s players formed an even tighter bond.
“We got a brand-new bunch,” Sampson said, dried off and fully dressed. “But the culture never changes. Because they’re great kids and they’re high-character kids, they buy in. It’s never about them. Our program is always about we and us, and that’s what happens when you have great kids.”
For Illinois, it’s another year of deep disappointment. The fourth-seeded Fighting Illini (23-10) were determined to go farther after being bumped by Loyola Chicago last year, but couldn’t get past the second round again.
All-American center Kofi Cockburn did his part, scoring 19 in 38 minutes to lead Illinois. The big man spurned the NBA last year for a shot at some tournament redemption, only to come up short in what was likely his last college game.
“It hurts really bad, especially for the guys that’s leaving,” Cockburn said. “We always want to leave with with a good feeling, you know? We fell short. Can’t really put it into words.”
Illinois coach Brad Underwood credited Houston’s defense, but didn’t have an answer for his team’s poor shooting (6 of 25 on 3s) or turnovers (17). He got a nice lift from freshmen Luke Goode and RJ Melendez, but not enough from his other regulars.
“We didn’t play very well. We didn’t shoot it very well,” Underwood said. “We played well enough; we didn’t shoot it very well. You look at our two games here, and we just shot it terrible.
“We got great shots, we just couldn’t make them.”
Down by 12 in the first half, Illinois battled back and was within 56-49 after Alfonso Plummer’s four-point play.
But after Shead hit a floater, Houston’s Fabian White Jr. made the play of the game by racing into the backcourt and swatting the ball before it went out of bounds with his left hand to Moore for a layup.
“Culture play, that’s what we call it,” Sampson said. “Those are culture plays. Whenever we watch film, we do edits. We always end our film sessions with culture plays. Everybody wants to be on the edit.
“There were three guys involved in that play. Somebody made a great effort play on the baseline, Fabian made a great effort play, and next thing you know, Taze is getting a layup.”
As Illinois was fighting back, Melendez was called for a questionable technical foul by referee Brian O’Connell for hanging on the rim after a dunk.
The bucket brought the Illini within four in the final 10 minutes, but the call seemed to have a negative effect.
Melendez said he didn’t get an explanation.
Underwood was both puzzled and perturbed by the call
“I can’t wait to see it,” Underwood said. “He (O’Connell) told me he shouldn’t ever have called it, but in the moment he calls it. Maybe it’s personal, I don’t know. When a kid has a full head of steam going 100 miles an hour, and we all talk about safety and well-being of student-athletes, come on.
“And then to kill momentum like that? Horrible.”