Sasser, Houston moving on at March Madness after beating Auburn

Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Sasser hurt anew as top seed Houston beats Northern Kentucky

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Broome, Auburn hold off Iowa 83-75 in NCAA tourney

Jake Crandall/ Advertsier / USA TODAY NETWORK

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – When it comes to Auburn and the NCAA Tournament, the Tigers know how to make an opening statement.

Johni Broome had 19 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots, and No. 9 seed Auburn beat Iowa 83-75 on Thursday for its 10th consecutive opening-round win dating to the mid-1980s.

The Tigers (21-12) made 11 of 12 free throws over the final four minutes to lock up a second-round matchup with No. 1 seed Houston or Northern Kentucky.

It was a decidedly Auburn-oriented crowd two hours from campus.

“They were loud and rowdy the whole game,” Auburn guard Allen Flanigan said. “It felt like a home game for us.”

Broome even made his ninth 3-pointer of the season to push the margin into double digits for the first time with 16 minutes left.

The Tigers appeared poised to pull away in front of a partisan orange-and-blue crowd, going up by 17 with a 13-2 run midway through the second half sparked by Tre Donaldson’s three 3-pointers off the bench.

The eighth-seeded Hawkeyes climbed back into it, twice cutting it down to four but coming no closer.

“We knew they had another run in them,” Broome said. “We were like, ’Let’s make a stop and win this game.’”

Auburn had six players score in double figures. Wendell Green Jr. had 15 points, and Donaldson, Jaylin Williams and KD Johnson each finished with 11. Allen Flanigan scored 10.

Payton Sandford scored 21 points for Iowa. Kris Murray had 15 points on 5-of-18 shooting and nine rebounds. Filip Rebraca scored 14 points.

The Hawkeyes found themselves playing in essentially a road game. But they declined to use that as an excuse.

“We’re used to playing in hostile environments,” Connor McCaffery said. “Obviously if we had our choice we would have preferred it to be a little more neutral, but that’s not why we lost at all.

“We won at Rutgers, we won at IU (Indiana) and those places are 100 times louder than it was here today.”

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, Connor’s father, echoed that sentiment after his team ended with a third straight loss.

“Every game in our league is a hostile environment so it cannot be an excuse, nor do we want to make it one,” he said. “We were right there, and you have to give credit to your opponent.”

Johnson had a scary moment in the final minute of the first half.

He went up attempting to block a shot by Rebraca, who pump-faked and sent Johnson somersaulting over the top of the Iowa player.

The junior guard landed with a thud on his lower back and buttocks, sending the crowd into a hushed silence. Johnson stayed down briefly, writhing in pain, before heading to the bench to get checked out. He played in the second half.

“I was just scared,” Johnson said. “I wanted to make sure I didn’t hurt myself in any other way. That was crazy.”


Auburn: Made seven 3-pointers in the second half after a 1-of-9 start.

Iowa: Fell just short of a fifth consecutive 20-win season. Missed all nine first-half 3-point attempts and finished 7 of 27 (25.9%) from deep. A team averaging 80 points a game was held to 26 in the first half.

“Our speed and quickness was obviously a factor on the defensive end,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.


Auburn is 1-6 all-time against Houston, among the favorites to win it all.

Texas A&M beats Auburn 83-78, completes season sweep

Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Wade Taylor IV had 22 points and seven assists, Julius Marble scored a career-high 20 points and Texas A&M beat Auburn 83-78 on Tuesday night to complete a regular-season sweep.

The last of 11 lead changes in the final eight minutes came after Texas A&M made 7 of 9 shots, with three straight makes from Marble, to build a 78-74 lead with 2:09 left.

Auburn guard Wendell Green Jr. was short on a long 3-pointer and Tyrece Radford secured the defensive rebound before being fouled with 24.9 seconds left. Radford made two free throws to extend Texas A&M’s lead to 80-76. Green had a layup roll off the rim and Andersson Garcia went 1 of 2 from the line for a five-point lead before Auburn was short on another 3-pointer with 10.8 left.

Texas A&M was 31 of 39 from the free-throw line compared to 9 of 14 for Auburn.

Garcia added 11 points and Radford scored 10 for Texas A&M (17-7, 9-2 SEC), which also beat then-No. 15 Auburn 79-63 on Jan. 25. The Aggies are off to their best conference start since joining the SEC in 2012.

Green finished with 20 points and six assists for Auburn (17-7, 7-4). Johni Broome had 18 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out late and Jaylin Williams and Allen Flanigan each scored 12 points.

Texas A&M plays at LSU on Saturday. Auburn, which has lost four of its last five games, hosts No. 3 Alabama on Saturday.

James leads No. 2 Tennessee over No. 25 Auburn, 46-43

Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Josiah-Jordan James scored 15 points and 14 rebounds to lead No. 2 Tennessee to a 46-43 victory over No. 25 Auburn on Saturday in a game in which every point was difficult and nothing flowed.

“Both teams played as hard as they could,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes. “Every possession was a grind.”

The Volunteers (19-4, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) shot just 27% from the field and 9.5% from the 3-point line. They were recovering from a Wednesday loss to Florida in which they shot 28%.

Tennessee had a 47-42 edge on the boards and 15-8 on the offensive glass.

“A game like this shows a lot of character,” said James. “I knew coming in (rebounding) was what I’d be called to do. I had to use the body God’s given me.”

“Both teams did a fantastic job,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. “To hold Tennessee to 27% … It doesn’t get any better than that.”

“I don’t think there’s a more physical league in the country,” said Barnes.

The Tigers (17-6, 7-3) were led by Johni Broome with 11 points and nine rebounds and K.D. Johnson off the bench with 10 points. Auburn managed only 24% from the field and 11% from the 3-point line.

Jaylin Williams made two free throws with 2:47 to play cut Tennessee’s lead to 40-38. Santiago Vescovi hit his first 3-pointer of the game and got a four-point play out of it for a 44-38 lead. A 3-pointer by Wendell Green Jr. cut the advantage to 44-41 with 30 seconds left.

A turnover on the inbounds play gave Auburn the ball with 23 seconds to play. Broome got a tip-in to make it a one-point game, and Zakai Zeigler made two free throws.

Green’s last-second 3-point to tie clanked out.

“At the end, Wendell Green got the shot off and got fouled,” said Pearl. “Nothing got called.”

Auburn scored eight straight points to start the game. Tennessee followed with a six-point run and an eight-point spurt early in the second half. Those were the longest runs of the game.


Tennessee was in the No. 2 spot in the poll for two days before falling at Florida. Under Barnes, the Vols now have 25 wins over teams ranked in the Top 25. . Auburn had been clinging to the elite at No. 25 this week. The Tigers have been ranked as high as No. 11, coming in the fifth week of the season.


Since statistics started being kept in 1999-2000, Tennessee is on pace to be the all-time leader in field-goal percentage defense (.348; Stanford, 1999-2000, is second .352) and 3-point defense (.225; Norfolk State, 2004-05, is second .253). . Through 22 games, the similarities between last year’s Vols point guard Kennedy Chandler (now with the Memphis Grizzlies) and this year’s Ziegler are striking (points per game: Chandler 13.5, Ziegler 11.4; rebounds: 3.0, 3.0; assists: 4.95, 5.05).


Auburn: The Tigers will host Texas A&M on Tuesday night.

Tennessee: The Vols will tackle in-state rival Vanderbilt in Nashville on Wednesday.

Green, No. 22 Auburn beats No. 13 Arkansas, 72-59

auburn arkansas
John Reed/USA TODAY Sports
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AUBURN, Ala. — Wendell Green Jr. hit a 3-pointer, drew a foul and polished off a four-point play just 14 seconds into the game.

No. 22 Auburn never lost the lead after that fast start.

Green scored 19 points and Allen Flanigan matched his season high with 18 to lead the Tigers to a 72-59 victory over No. 13 Arkansas on Saturday night in their first game against a ranked opponent. It was a turnaround from a loss at Georgia.

“I think everyone in here would agree that we needed that,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “Could you have expected it? I don’t know. But they really showed me something tonight. The bounce-back. The quick turnaround.

“Played great from the start. We got Wendell some really good looks against the Arkansas defense. He got us off to a great start.”

The Tigers (12-3, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) took a double-digit lead into halftime and didn’t come close to becoming another comeback victim of the Razorbacks (12-3, 1-2).

Green had five assists, while Flanigan pulled down eight rebounds.

“It was wonderful to see Allen Flanigan have one of the best games of his career in an important game,” said Pearl, calling it “probably one of the top four or five wins” he has had at Neville Arena.

Johni Broome finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds for Auburn in his third straight double-double. He also blocked six shots.

Anthony Black led Arkansas with 23 points after the freshman totaled 13 in his first two SEC games. He matched that from the free throw line alone, making 13 of 16. Ricky Council IV had 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting.

“I thought Anthony Black was absolutely spectacular offensively,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “We didn’t have much else besides that.”

Black scored 11 straight Arkansas points with Auburn threatening to run away with it in the second half.

The Razorbacks twice cut the deficit to nine points in the final four minutes, but couldn’t come closer.

“It’s crazy. We missed 13 free throws (in 32 attempts) and we lost by 13,” Black said. “We missed a couple of easy ones, offensive rebounds, put-backs. We couldn’t hit a shot, myself included.”

Green made 3 of 4 free throws in the final minute and Flanigan hit both of his attempts from the line to avoid any kind of jeopardy.

A matchup of two of the nation’s worst 3-point shooting teams was one-sided from long range. Arkansas, which came in ranked 321st in 3-point percentage, made just 2 of 16 (12.5%). Auburn was 330th in that category, but made 7 of 21 (33.3%). Flanigan hit three.

“Everybody knows the 3-point shooting, you’re not just miraculously going to wake up and all of a sudden become a great 3-point shooting team,” Musselman said. “So you’ve got to figure other ways to put points on the board.”

Auburn took a 36-25 lead into halftime after Arkansas failed to make a basket over the final five minutes.

Green scored seven points in the first 90 seconds, including a pair of 3-pointers. That matched his point total in a loss to Georgia when he was 2-of-12 shooting.

“I just wanted to come back and show how I play,” Green said. “That’s how I play. It just felt good to see that first shot go in.”


Arkansas: Couldn’t pull off its fourth comeback from a double-digit deficit and second straight after rallying from 17 down to beat Missouri. Outrebounded Auburn 45-32.

Auburn: Snapped a three-game losing streak to the Razorbacks and rebounded strongly from a 76-64 loss at Georgia that put the Tigers in jeopardy of falling from the rankings for the first time.


Arkansas: Hosts No. 7 Alabama on Wednesday night.

Auburn: Visits Mississippi on Tuesday night.