Sasser leads Cougars to big season-opening win
Houston continued its identity as a defensive juggernaut, earning its first victory of the season with an 84-56 defeat of Alabama State behind freshman guard Marcus Sasser’s 14 points.
Sasser shot 5 of 9 from the field in his Cougars debut. However, the key to the Cougars’ victory was their defense as the defending American Athletic Conference regular season champions held the visiting Hornets to just 34.7 percent from the field.
Fresh off the program’s best NCAA Tournament appearance in three decades, head coach Kelvin Sampson’s squad was one of the nation’s strongest defensive units a year ago, ranking No. 11 in defensive efficiency and No. 1 in effective field goal percentage at just 42.5 percent, according to Kenpom.
“When you go from your trap to your set defense or your base defense, being able to recover quicker. We just gotta keep working,” Sampson said. “(We) need to get better in that area.”
Tasked with a high-octane and frequent half-court presses, Houston stifled Alabama State’s offense much of the game, forcing 13 turnovers and holding it to just 35.7 percent from two-point range.
The Hornets did not score a field goal until the 12:30 mark, a 3-pointer from senior forward Leon Daniels, while their first 2-point attempt took more than a quarter of a game, dropping at the 9:14 mark by junior guard Kevin Holston.
While zone defense was highly effective in limiting Alabama State’s offensive game, there were instances where it was clear it was Houston’s first game of the season.
The Cougars suffered several occasions of lost opponents and conceded open three-point attempts. The Hornets shot 7 of 21 from behind the arc, including six makes before the break.
Sampson was happy with Houston’s rebounding ability in the win.
“Anytime you can out rebound somebody 21 rebounds, that’s usually a good sign,” he said. “I thought our ball movement was really good.”
Entering Tuesday’s matchup, Alabama State was averaging 57 points per game and shooting 40.6 percent from the field. The Hornets were held below both these averages Tuesday.
But Houston’s 16th win in the Fertitta Center since its inauguration nearly one year ago was not solely a defensive stand.
Sophomore guard Quentin Grimes, junior guard Dejon Jarreau and junior forwards Justin Gorham and Fabian White Jr. all joined Sasser in double digit scoring, amassing 13, 11, 11 and 10 points, respectively.
As a team, the Cougars made 51.6 percent of their attempts and 9 of 22 from 3-point range.
UH lost the three leading scorers from last season’s Sweet Sixteen team, but the new core group, centered around Grimes, White Jr. and Jarreau showed that the 2019-20 season will be another balanced one as the Cougars will battle in a highly competitive AAC.
“Our team will get better,” Sampson said. “I like our team, I really like our kids. We just have some youth and inexperience where we’re used to having seen.”