On Wednesday night, the Houston Cougars’ season came to an end after an 81-62 loss to Georgia Tech in the first round of the NIT Tournament. Kelvin Sampson’s second year coaching the program was defined by progress, with a 22-8 regular season, but culminated in a disappointing post-season, which included a quarterfinal loss to Tulane in the American Athletic Conference Tournament and a first round exit in the NIT. But appearing in the NIT at all should satisfy any realistic expectations anyone had and indicate a successful 2015-2016 campaign.
While the Cougars should be proud of their season as a whole, the seniors are likely feeling down about this early exit, as it marks their final time playing for the university. Houston has much momentum going forward, as they are chalk full of young talent, but the four seniors, L.J. Rose, Eric Weary Jr., LeRon Barnes, and Devonta Pollard will not get to be a part of this rebuild going forward.
Although it wasn’t the result that he had hoped for, Pollard, who was arguably Houston’s most important player in final stretch of the season, had a productive night in his final game in Cougar red, with 21 points. Ultimately, though, his performance, along with Damyean Dotson, who scored 14 and got 6 rebounds, wasn’t enough to take down the Yellow Jackets.
Georgia Tech ended their regular season ACC schedule winning five of their last six, and secured a victory over Clemson in the ACC Tournament. The NIT four seed came into this first round matchup with Houston hot.
But in the early going, both teams looked evenly matched. Five minutes into the first half, the score was tied at 11. But the Cougars were largely dependent on Pollard and Dotson for scoring. Rob Gray Jr., Houston’s leading scorer, was subbed in to provide some help. But he struggled mightily, missing shots that he had made all season.
The entire offense then regressed. Two careless Yellow Jacket turnovers kept the game within reach with about ten minutes left in the first half, but this was only temporary. And when LeRon Barnes got a second foul on a made three pointer by Adam Smith, who proceeded to render it a four-point play and a 29-22 lead for Georgia Tech, the Cougars began to appear frazzled.
The struggles continued, and Houston fell to a nine-point deficit going into halftime, trailing 41-32. The Yellow Jackets already had three players in double digits and seemed to be dominating in all facets of the game, especially in the post. The Cougars went 0-5 from behind the arc and got outrebounded 19-14.
The second half was no kinder to Houston, who got off to a slow start. They did eventually begin to make some shots. But they couldn’t make stops on defense, so their deficit remained. Also, their short lived offensive output ended quickly, and the Yellow Jackets began to pull away. Their lead quickly ballooned to 24 with 10:40 left in the second half after a Quinton Stephens jumper.
The game began to feel out of reach. There were very few bright spots remaining for the Cougars. Gray Jr. did hit his first three of the game with 8:25 left. But ultimately, the lead proved insurmountable. Although they never surrendered and stopped playing, when the final seconds disappeared from the clock, the score read 81-62. They couldn’t pull off the win in Atlanta.
The Georgia Tech trio of Adam Smith, Marcus Georges-Hunt, and Charles Mitchell proved too dynamic for them to contain. Smith led Tech scorers with 20. Georges-Hunt was close behind, with 19. Charles Mitchell put up 12, and perhaps most importantly, got 7 rebounds.
Dotson and Pollard kept up their impressive performances and reprised their roles as the most important players on Sampson’s team. Pollard led all scorers with 21. Dotson had 14, but also grabbed 6 rebounds. And Ronnie Johnson added 10 points.
But the Yellow Jackets shot 50% from behind the arc, to Houston’s abysmal 15.4%. Their superior stat line also included 34 points in the paint and an outrebounding of 39-25.
Houston has been a dependable rebounding team this season, regularly outperforming their opponents. But on this occasion, they got dominated. This, coupled with their poor three-point shooting, doomed them to defeat.
The post-season has been a bit of a reality check for the Cougars, who ended the regular season strong, winning nine of their last eleven, including two wins against NCAA Tournament bound UConn and Cincinnati. A heartbreaking loss to Tulane in the AAC Tournament and a disappointing first round exit in the NIT, however, is not an ideal way to close out the 2015-2016 season.
But these two losses shouldn’t dampen the excitement for next year, for a team that should be brimming with ever evolving talent. Nor should they lead anyone to believe that this team has underachieved. Sampson led this program from a 13-19 in his first year to a 22-win campaign that culminated in an NIT invite. This is no small feat for a team made up of transfers who largely began playing with each other only this season.
We, as a fan base, should be proud of this team and where the program is headed. But the disappointment felt right now, after this loss to Georgia Tech, may actually be a good thing. It means we care. And that’s what this program needs going forward: a community of people who care about whether this team wins or loses, but never wavers in their support. We need to do our part. Because Sampson and his team have proven throughout this season that they are going to do theirs.