NEW ORLEANS – Once Houston coach Kelvin Sampson asked Marcus Sasser to pass a little less and look for his shot, the No. 1 Cougars were well on their way to turning what looked like a difficult road test into a comfortable victory.
“They were backing off of Marcus and Marcus was passing it, and I was going, `Marcus, shoot,”‘ Sampson said.
Sasser highlighted a 23-point performance with seven 3-pointers, and Houston defeated Tulane 80-60 on Tuesday night for the Cougars’ ninth straight victory.
Sampson “was telling me to do what I do best for the team,” said Sasser, who averages a team-leading 16.6 points per game and was coming off a 31-point night in his previous game against South Florida. “I felt like, first half I was being passive. … I just put my mind on being aggressive and trying to put the ball in the hole. I really just got rolling.”
J’Wan Roberts scored 15 and Jamal Shead added 14 points for Houston (18-1, 6-0 American Athletic Conference), which led for all but a 50-second span in the first half while preventing Tulane (12-6, 5-2) from taking over the top spot in the conference.
Jaylen Forbes scored 23 and Jalen Cook added 15 points for the Wave, which could not get closer than five points in the second half. When Sasser’s 3 with 3:28 made it 73-54, Tulane fans started filing out of an arena, which had been packed and loud for much of the game’s first 30 minutes.
“I saw it,” Sasser said of the fans heading for the exits. “It’s always a good feeling to do that. I feel like that’s kind of the dagger. It’s always good to hit those dagger shots like that.”
Tramon Mark added 12 points for Houston, which shot 55.4% and hit 12 of 24 3-point attempts.
“They are definitely the No. 1 team in the country,” Tulane coach Ron Hunter said of the Cougars. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and they are a talented team.”
Kevin Cross scored 12 for Tulane, which shot 40% and made just 6 of 26 from deep – a steep drop off in offensive production from the 88 points the Green Wave had averaged during its first six conference games.
The Cougars opened the second half with an 8-0 run fueled by Sasser’s 3 and his driving layup to take a 48-32 lead. Houston was still up 53-38 after Sasser’s step-back 3, but the Wave was briefly able to lock in defensively, forcing five straight Cougars misses during an 11-1 run.
“We showed fight,” Forbes said. “We didn’t just lay down to them.”
Forbes’ fourth 3 of the game capped the spurt and pulled Tulane to 54-49 before Houston’s Mark hit a pull-up in transition to stunt the Wave’s momentum and spark a 7-0 Cougars run highlighted by another Sasser 3.
“On the road, going into the game, we know how the crowd’s going to try to involve themselves in the game,” Mark said. “I think we handled it pretty well.”
The Cougars shot 57% in the first half and led by 12 when Shead hit a driving layup in the final minute of the half.
But Tulane ended the half on a high note. Forbes hit a 3 as he was fouled on the left wing with 4 seconds to go and completed the four-point play to pull the Wave to 40-32 at halftime.
Houston: The game represented arguably the Cougars’ toughest test in conference play this season. Not only did the Green Wave come in trying to take over first place in the AAC, but Tulane’s cozy, 4,000-seat Fogelman Arena in the Devlin Fieldhouse was sold out days in advance, packed and loud. But the Cougars looked composed and well rested after not having played for six days. They kept a double-digit lead for much of the night and had a response for every Tulane run.
“I know that when we’re on our stuff, we’re a pretty good team and we’re hard to beat,” Shead said. “J’Wan brought it today, Marcus was electric, Tramon was electric. I didn’t expect (a 20-point win), but I’m happy with it.”
Tulane: The Green Wave might have its best team in years but has now lost 10 straight against Houston. Tulane will get its next shot to break its losing streak against the Cougars on Feb. 22 in Houston.
Houston: Hosts Temple on Sunday.
Tulane: At Tulsa on Saturday night.