On Friday, March 11th, the Houston Cougars suffered an upset loss to the Tulane Green Wave in the quarterfinal of the American Athletic Conference Tournament. They were eliminated from the event and from any hopes of getting a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Their record fell to 22-9.
From the beginning, the Cougars didn’t look sharp. The starting lineup appeared sluggish. When leading scorer Rob Gray Jr. entered the game from the bench, he provided a little spark. But even this didn’t create sustained momentum. It wasn’t that Tulane was playing particularly well. The Cougars were just underperforming.
Eventually they did manufacture a lead. Damyean Dotson began hitting shots and Galen Robinson Jr. made some timely layups. They ended the first half strong, creating a 36-28 lead.
While they did play well to close out the first half, Kelvin Sampson’s team never really dominated, as they likely expected to. And Devonta Pollard, who had been instrumental in the Cougars’ recent success, was already in foul trouble, with three.
Tulane came into this tournament as the ten seed, the lowest in the standing with a mere three conference wins. The Cougars had defeated them twice in the regular season and completed a 22-8 regular season record. They were also on a hot streak, winning nine of their last eleven, which earned them the two seed. Despite these perceived advantages, they struggled mightily to close out the game.
Houston did create a ten point lead early in the second half, after a Pollard layup and and one. The score was 44-34. But the Green Wave subsequently went on an 8-0 run to bring them within two. The game was fairly close until its closing seconds. Ultimately, missed free throws down the stretch from LeRon Barnes and Rob Gray Jr. spelled the Cougars’ doom.
A timely three pointer from Barnes with 2:28 left gave them hope, as did the following dunk from Pollard, which gave them a 68-67 lead with 54 seconds left. On the next possession, Barnes was fouled. He made one and put his team up by two.
But his miss on the second shot allowed Tulane to get the ball back, which resulted in a three pointer from guard Cameron Reynolds, who is actually from Pearland, Texas. His shot put the Green Wave up by one, and Houston into a tough spot. After turning the ball over and fouling to stop the clock, Tulane guard Malik Morgan made both and iced the game. Houston: 69. Tulane: 72.
The Green Wave won this game despite shooting 2-14 from three. Though, or course, they hit the ones that mattered. They got 18 points and 8 rebounds from forward Dylan Osetkowski, whose post presence proved to be too much for the inconsistent Houston bigs. They got another 16 points from guard Louis Dabney.
The primary contributing factor to Houston’s loss was their abysmal free throw shooting. They shot a mere 50%, going 13-26. They also got outrebounded, 40-33.
In some ways, the Cougars played in their inferior early season form, prior to Gray Jr.’s ankle injury, and the increased offensive dynamism that it forced. Gray Jr. led scorers with 17. And Pollard, who did end up scoring 11, struggled for much of the game. He got into foul trouble early, and seemed to be cold from his signature spot right in front of the three-point line. He has been consistently making this shot in the last eleven games. In this one, though, it wasn’t going down. Despite these struggles, Dotson added 16 and Barnes 11. This helped keep the game close. But it wasn’t enough.
While this defeat is extraordinarily disappointing, there is a lot of positivity to glean from this season. This loss did effectively eliminate the Cougars from the NCAA Tournament, but they could still secure a bid to the NIT. And, considering the expectations that greeted this team when the season began, we should consider this campaign a success. In Kelvin Sampson’s second year, he has bounced from 13-19 to 22-9. And while this loss to the ten seed hurts right now, the future is bright. And Sampson has proven that he can turn around a team in a hurry. Imagine what another year will do. I can’t wait.