CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Blowing a 15-point lead in the second half against No. 4 Alabama a week ago got the attention of No. 5 Houston’s players. Coach Kelvin Sampson made sure of it.
It may have helped the Cougars stymie a comeback by No. 2 Virginia on Saturday.
Jarace Walker scored 17 points and Houston used runs in each half and the nation’s best scoring defense to beat the Cavaliers 69-61. The Cougars scored on three straight possessions after a steal and layup by Kihei Clark brought a sellout crowd clad in orange to its feet, exhorting Virginia to rely on its own defense to finish the comeback.
“I’m not sure we’re able to do that without the Alabama experience,” Sampson said.
After Clark pulled the Cavaliers within 54-48, Jamal Shead scored on a drive, Tramon Mark hit a 3-pointer and Walker made a tough fadeaway, keeping the Cavaliers at bay.
“Just keeping our composure when you get a big lead and just be mature and try not to go away from what we’ve been doing, which we did against Alabama,” J’Wan Roberts said. “We watch film and we learn. We grew from that.”
Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark each added 13 points for the Cougars (11-1), who used a 10-2 run early in the second half to open a 40-30 lead. Virginia (8-1), playing for the first time in 11 days, never got closer than six again, and each time the Cougars answered.
The Cavaliers shot 41.7% (20-48). Coach Tony Bennett said when shots aren’t falling, that makes the quality of play on the defensive end all the more important.
“Today they obviously took advantage of our breakdowns and scored,” Bennett said. “Today the tougher, sounder team on the defensive end won the game.”
Kadin Shedrick scored 16 points and Jayden Gardner had 13 for the Cavaliers, who were hoping to avenge a 67-47 loss last year on the Cougars’ home floor. Houston became the highest-ranked nonconference opponent ever to play Virginia in Charlottesville.
Clark’s steal and layup pulled Virginia within 56-50 with 2:55 to play, but Tramon Mark answered with a 3-pointer for the Cougars, who shot 49% (25-51) against a defense ranked 12th nationally, allowing 57.9 points.
The Cavaliers closed to within 30-28 on Gardner’s basket to open the second half, but the Cougars went on their run, with Walker contributing a three-point play and 3-pointer in the spurt, to lead 40-30.
Virginia scored the first nine points and led 15-7 before going cold. The Cougars outscored them 17-4 over more than 10 minutes to lead 26-19. Houston led 30-26 at halftime.
The Cavaliers are the highest-ranked team Houston has faced during the regular season since it met No. 1 Memphis on Feb. 13, 2008.
The Cavaliers are likely to fall, but not very far, and Houston’s victory on the road is likely to make voters almost forget their 71-65 loss to Alabama a week ago when the Cougars were No. 1 and the Tide were ranked eighth.
Houston: The Cougars arrived with one player, Sasser (16.2), scoring in double figures but had five do it against the Cavaliers. Jamal Shead scored 11 and J’Wan Roberts had 10.
Virginia: The Cavaliers got guard Reece Beekman back after he suffered a hamstring injury in their previous game. Beekman was effective defensively but did not demonstrate the explosive power driving to the basket that typifies his offensive game.
“He didn’t quite have his burst. I thought he was pretty good defensively, not quite as explosive offensively and probably a little fatigued because he hasn’t done much,” Bennett said, adding that Beekman hardly has practiced since the injury.
The Cougars return home to face McNeese on Wednesday night.
The Cavaliers go on the road to face No. 25 Miami on Tuesday night.