BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – When Marcus Sasser felt the occasional twinge in his groin, he simply blocked it out. With so much on the line, he was determined to stay on the court for top-seeded Houston.
Now, he’s got a few more days to recuperate before the Sweet 16.
Tramon Mark scored a career-best 26 points and Sasser added 22 – including five 3-pointers – as the Cougars stifled local favorite Auburn in the second half for an 81-64 victory at the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night.
The Cougars (33-3) wiped out a 10-point halftime deficit, returning after the break with a chip on their shoulders.
“We came out on fire,” Mark said. “Everything was clicking for us in the second half.”
Essentially shutting down the lane, Houston played with the desperation of a national championship contender that wasn’t ready to suffer the same fate as Purdue and Kansas – No. 1s that already were sent home.
Houston advanced to face either No. 4 Indiana or No. 5 Miami, which play Sunday, at the Sweet 16 in Kansas City, Missouri.
All eyes were on Sasser at the start of the game as he continued to deal with a groin injury that forced him to sit out the second half of Houston’s NCAA opener. But the All-American was determined to go all the way in this one.
The only thing that sent him to the bench was foul trouble, not the groin.
“I probably felt it a couple of times,” said Sasser, who played nearly 31 minutes. “But it was pain I could go through and keep pushing.”
Now, Houston doesn’t play again until Friday. More time for Sasser to feel even better.
“I don’t know about eliminating it,” he said. “But I feel like it will get way better.”
The ninth-seeded Tigers (21-13) were doomed by a stretch of more than 10 1/2 minutes without a field goal and finished just 4 of 24 from the field in the second half.
Auburn did draw plenty of fouls, only to struggle mightily at the line with a 19-of-36 showing. Jaylin Williams and Johni Broome led the Tigers with 14 points apiece.
“I kind of wish it were a 20-minute game instead of a 40-minute game,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “They came out and guarded us much harder, much better. And we didn’t respond to it.”
When Sasser swished a 3-pointer to push Houston back ahead, 46-45, he let out an emphatic scream on his way back down the court. He finished 5 of 9 beyond the arc.
Fouls were his only real issue. The All-American guard and his running mate, point guard Jamal Shead, were both forced to the bench with four fouls apiece with the game still in doubt.
But Mark kept the Cougars right on rolling offensively, and the the big guys simply refused to let Auburn back in the game.
Houston had 12 blocks, half of them swatted away by Jarace Walker, with five more shots turned away by J’Wan Roberts.
“I think the biggest adjustment was in our attitude,” coach Kelvin Sampson said. “I was almost glad it was Auburn’s ball first (in the second half), because I thought we needed to set the tone with a stop.”
It wound up lasting an entire half.
Houston scored the last nine points to blow it open at the end, with Sasser delivering one more 3-pointer that sent the Auburn fans – and there were plenty of them – heading for the exits.
It was quite a change from the first half.
Auburn closed on a 17-4 run while Houston missed six of its last eight shots, its only baskets coming on a pair of layups.
Leading up to the game, the Cougars shrugged off being a No. 1 seed that was forced to play what felt like a road game in the second round.
But once they were victorious, it was clear they took pleasure from silencing the large Auburn contingent at Legacy Arena – only about a two-hour drive from the Tigers’ campus in east Alabama..
“It’s crazy that we had to play Auburn in Birmingham,” backup guard Emanuel Sharp said to a group of teammates in the locker room.
“Road warriors!” one of them shouted back.
Houston improved to 17-1 in road and neutral-site games this season.
Auburn: The Tigers wrapped up an inconsistent season in appropriate fashion. They won only five of their last 15 games and didn’t put together back-to-back victories after Jan. 21.
Houston: Mark’s performance – the sophomore guard was averaging 9.6 points per game – shows the Cougars are far more than a one-man team. Either Indiana or Miami will have another offensive threat to worry about in the next round.
The Cougars are heading to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the last five years under Kelvin Sampson. But their eyes are really on the Final Four, which is right in their own backyard at NRG Stadium in Houston.
The program has yet to win a national title, despite six appearances in the Final Four.