Marcus Sasser looked just fine, scoring 22 points, and top-seeded Houston stifled local favorite Auburn in the second half for an 81-64 victory in the NCAA Tournament Saturday night.
The Cougars (33-3) overcame a 10-point halftime deficit, returning after the break with a chip on their shoulders.
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.
Led by Tramon Mark with 26 points, Houston advanced to face either No. 4 Indiana or No. 5 Miami, which play Sunday, in the Sweet 16 in Kansas City, Missouri.
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Tramon Mark of the Houston Cougars reacts after a play during the second half against the Auburn Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Legacy Arena at the BJCC March 18, 2023, in Birmingham, Ala. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The Tigers (21-13) were doomed by a stretch of more than 10½ 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 at 19 of 36. Jaylin Williams and Johni Broome led the Tigers with 14 points apiece.
Sasser had dealt with a groin injury over the past week, but that didn’t seem to cause him any problems. When he 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.
Sasser’s only issue was foul trouble. The All-American guard and his running mate, point guard Jamal Shead, were 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 Jarace Walker-led defense just refused to let Auburn back in the game.
Houston Cougars fans cheer during the second half against the Auburn Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Legacy Arena at the BJCC March 18, 2023, in Birmingham, Ala. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Houston had 12 blocks, half of them swatted away by Walker. Houston scored the final nine points to blow it open at the end, with Sasser delivering another key shot from beyond the 3-point stripe.
Auburn ripped off a 17-4 run over the final 5½ minutes of the first half. Williams scored eight of those points, swishing a 3-pointer and also converting a three-point play.
Houston missed six of its last eight shots in the half, its only baskets coming on a pair of layups.
But the Cougars would not be denied, even with the Tigers having a home-state edge. Legacy Arena in Birmingham is only about a two-hour drive from their east Alabama campus.
Marcus Sasser of the Houston Cougars reacts during the second half against the Auburn Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Legacy Arena at the BJCC March 18, 2023, in Birmingham, Ala. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Auburn: The Tigers wrapped up an inconsistent season in appropriate fashion. They last won back-to-back games Jan. 18 and 21, closing out the season by winning only five of their last 15 games.
Houston: Sasser now has plenty of time to rest his groin, which should give him even more confidence he’s not going to have any more problems.
Houston is heading to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the last five years under Kelvin Sampson. The Cougars have never won a national title, despite six appearances in the Final Four.