BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – With All-American Marcus Sasser watching from the bench, top-seeded Houston shook off Northern Kentucky for a 63-52 victory to open the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night.
Chants of “NKU!” and “Overrated!” filled Legacy Arena as the 16th-seeded Norse trailed by only three at halftime and made it 36-all with under 16 minutes to go against the Cougars (32-3).
But Houston pulled away behind 16 points from Jarace Walker, advancing to face ninth-seeded Auburn on Saturday.
“I don’t coach Northern Kentucky, but I was proud of their team tonight,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “They fought. Their kids are tough. They’re smart.”
Now, all eyes turn to Sasser, Houston’s top scorer and its first member of The Associated Press All-America first team since 1984.
After going down last weekend with a groin injury in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, Sasser was a game-time decision for the start of the NCAA Midwest Region.
He got the start and looked just fine when he knocked down an early 3-pointer. But Sasser didn’t do much else, finishing with five points on 2-of-5 shooting in just under 14 minutes of playing time.
When the second half began, Sasser wasn’t on the court. The school announced he had aggravated his groin problem, forcing him to watch the rest of the game from the bench.
“He said it felt funny,” Sampson said. “So he shut it down, which is the right thing to do.”
Sampson also revealed that guard Jamal Shead is bothered by a sore knee, thought he managed to play more than 36 minutes. Shead chipped in with 13 points and six assists.
“We’ve got to see how many healthy bodies we have right now,” Sampson said. “That’s probably our most important thing.”
The Cougars got by without Sasser on this night.
The Norse’s upset bid went down in a hail of clankers, the Horizon League champions shooting just 27.5% from the field (19 of 69) – including a horrendous 5 of 34 from 3-point range – to ruin any chance of becoming the next UMBC.
The Retrievers remain the only 16th seed in NCAA history to knock off a No. 1 seed, shocking Virginia in 2018.
“I’m unbelievably proud of our team, the fight that we showed,” coach Darrin Horn said. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we outplayed Houston tonight. We just didn’t make enough shots.”
Sam Vinson led the Norse (22-13) with 15 points, though he made just 1 of 8 from beyond the arc.
“It was frustrating a little bit, but we don’t think about that during the game,” Vinson said. “The coaches keep saying, ‘Shoot the ball, shoot the ball.’”
The Cougars avoided UMBC’s fate but things figure to get much tougher in the next one, especially if Sasser can’t go.
Auburn knocked off No. 8 seed Iowa 83-75 and will have another de facto home game in the second round, playing just a two-hour drive from its campus.
“Good for them,” Sampson said. “It’s a great break.”
The Cougars struggled offensively against Northern Kentucky’s matchup zone, which was unlike any defense they had seen this season. Houston led just 30-27 at halftime and finished well under its 75-point average coming into the game.
Sampson and his players also conceded to a lack of toughness.
“They were more aggressive,” said J’Wan Roberts, who had 11 points and 12 rebounds. “It felt like they wanted it more. We’ve got to learn from that and get better.”
Northern Kentucky: The Norse have yet to win three NCAA Tournament appearances, losing as a 14th, 15th and now 16th seed.
Houston: The Cougars hardly looked like a national championship contender, and Sasser’s health makes a title run look even more tenuous.
The Cougars will be playing Auburn for the first time since Dec. 8, 1982, when Houston’s “Phi Slama Jama” powerhouse featuring Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler prevailed 77-65 against the Charles Barkley-led Tigers. Overall, the teams have met just seven times, with the Cougars winning six. Auburn’s lone victory in the series came in 1962.