Men’s basketball falls to UAB in close match
On any other night, shooting 56.9 percent from the floor, hitting 14-of-27 three-point attempts and getting a 41-point performance from senior guard Robert "Fluff" McKiver would have been more than enough for a win.
That wasn’t the case Wednesday. The Cougars did everything in their power to come away with a win against the Blazers on the road, but a miracle shot by Alabama-Birmingham freshman guard Aaron Johnson with 2.9 seconds left Houston with a 101-99 loss and third place in Conference USA.
"When you go on the road you can’t make any mistakes," UH head coach Tom Penders said. "It was a game where both teams were on fire. We were even hotter than they were. We just got in foul trouble with our bigs, and they hit their free throws."
Senior guard Marcus Malone came in off the bench to drain two free throws, tie the game and give the Cougars the opportunity to send the contest into overtime with 9.4 seconds remaining.
Johnson took the inbound pass after UAB head coach Mike Davis called a time out, knifed his way across the court through UH defenders and hit a mid-range floater. The Cougars would not be able to respond, as Malone’s last-second, desperate heave from half court missed its target.
Penders said his team would have been in better condition down the stretch if the Cougars’ post players had not gotten in foul trouble so early and often in the game.
Starting senior forward Tafari Toney picked up his first two fouls 80 seconds into the game. Junior center Marcus Cousin picked up his third personal with 12:56 remaining in the first half, and reserve sophomore forward Nick Mosley had four fouls by halftime.
By the end of the game both Toney and senior forward Dion Dowell, who contributed 17 points and five rebounds playing at the 4 position, had fouled out.
This forced Penders to play small ball, which he said may have hindered his team’s ability to make stops in the paint.
"Defensively it hurt us when Toney and Cousin went out, particularly Toney. We weren’t as big in the paint. I would have felt a lot better down the stretch having Toney’s presence on the floor," Penders said.
UAB forward Reggie Huffman scored 16 of his team-high 22 points in the paint and had five dunks, taking advantage of Houston’s inability to consistently contest shots around the basket and discourage penetration.
Despite the foul trouble, the Cougars managed to stay competitive, thanks to the stellar guard play of McKiver and junior guard DaShaun Williams. McKiver consistently found ways to get his teammates involved, starting at point guard in the place of fellow senior Lanny Smith, who failed to see any floor time.
Williams hit big shot after big shot to keep the Cougars in the game and contribute to 16 lead changes in the contest. He finished the night with 23 points, going 9-of-12 from the floor and 2-for-2 from downtown.
Penders was impressed by the play of his starting guards in a game that meant so much for the Cougars’ postseason hopes.
"There are a few things that have improved this team over the last month, and Dashaun getting healthy is one of them," Penders said. "And ‘Fluff’ is just a competitor. You’re not going to find too many individual performances like we got tonight from ‘Fluff’ McKiver. … He’s a totally fearless player and a total unselfish player. He does so much tonight, on top of 41 points he had 7 assists. He shows poise."
Thanks to the loss, the Blazers and Cougars share an 8-3 record, but UAB holds the tie-breaker and has the second-place standing. The 19-6 Cougars have five regular season games remaining, and if the Conference USA Tournament were to start today they would be in the same bracket as Memphis – not the ideal seeding for a team that needs as many wins as possible in order to make the NCAA Tournament.
Luckily for Houston, UAB has one more game against Associated Press-ranked No. 1 Tigers before the C-USA Tournament starts. On paper, Houston’s toughest opponent looks to be Texas-El Paso on March 8. The race for the No. 2 seeding in the conference between the Cougars and the Blazers could go down to the wire.