The Houston Cougars earned their 20th win of the season on Wednesday night. While it came against a reeling UCF team, it notched their first 20 win campaign in the last three, and improved their record to 20-8 and 10-6 in conference.
Houston came into Orlando having won six of their last eight. But their last game was a heartbreaking loss to conference leading Temple at home. But the Cougars bounced back in a big way, securing a regular-season sweep against the team with a 7’6 center named Tacko Fall.
Although they eventually pulled away in this one, the Cougars started slow on offense. Five minutes into the first half, they were down 2-8. They then went on a bit of a run, and a thunderous dunk by Devonta Pollard tied the score, 8-8. The game remained fairly even until the last few minutes of the first half. But Houston began mounting a lead behind layups and another powerful dunk from Pollard. Though this time, he didn’t hold onto the rim, slid off, and fell on his wrist. He looked to be okay, which was evidenced by a one handed slam, which was more impressive than even the preceding ones, but was called off because his other hand already on the rim. It was called a technical foul. But it did nothing to slow them down, as they ended the first half with a three from both Danrad Knowles and Damyean Dotson, creating a 37-25 lead.
Halftime did little to alleviate their momentum. Right out of the gate, Eric Weary Jr., who hasn’t seen many minutes this season, hit a three to continue the offensive onslaught. Not even an elbow to Pollard’s face could stop the groove the Cougars created. They were making their shots and forcing stops on defense. They were firing at all cylinders and jumped out to a 20-point lead with 17 minutes remaining. This allowed deep bench players to get some reps, which could yield dividends come conference tournament time. Xavier Dupree, who hasn’t seen significant minutes in quite a while, got meaningful time on the court, and even hit a nice three.
The game felt secured from early in the second half, and the Cougars cruised to an 88-61 victory. They shot an impressive 56.7% and 50% from three. They outrebounded their opponent, 38-32, and led in essentially every statistical category, save blocks. Dependable Damyean Dotson scored 17. Pollard put up an important 14 and led in rebounding, with 7. Danrad Knowles also added 13.
Houston didn’t let UCF’s superior height adversely affect them. And they held their leading scorer, A.J. Davis, who had gotten into foul trouble, to just 8 points. While Chance McSpadden did put up 15, and Adonys Henriquez 12, the Knights couldn’t stop the dynamic Cougar offense.
Houston perhaps played their best game of the season on Wednesday. They executed each phase of the game well, and dominated, especially in the second half. This was an important win, as the Cougars clinched a first round bye in the American Athletic Conference Tournament. And, ideally, this emphatic victory will give them momentum going forward, as they face two teams currently ahead of them in the standings to close the season. These games against UConn and Cincinnati will be difficult, but if Houston plays as well as they did on Wednesday, they have a good chance of winning them.
Finishing the season strong will be paramount for the Cougars. They will need the momentum going into the conference tournament, because winning it will be their only realistic chance of getting a bid to the NCAA Tournament. But no matter what happens, this game against UCF has shown what they are capable of. And this should give fans a lot of encouragement going into next season, and render them believers in the Kelvin Sampson rebuild, if they weren’t already.