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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Men's Basketball

No. 1 UH routs Cincinnati, advances to fifth straight AAC Tournament championship game

After a 1-for-5 shooting performance on Friday, UH freshman forward Jarace Walker responded with 13 points and eight rebounds in the Cougars' rout of Cincinnati on Saturday afternoon at Dickies Arena. | Sean Thomas/sean.htxphoto

After a 1-for-5 shooting performance on Friday, UH freshman forward Jarace Walker responded with 13 points and eight rebounds in the Cougars’ rout of Cincinnati on Saturday afternoon at Dickies Arena. | Sean Thomas/sean.htxphoto

FORT WORTH — Top-ranked Houston advanced to its fifth consecutive American Athletic Conference Tournament championship game, defeating Cincinnati 68-49 on Saturday, but it came at a cost.

With 6:57 left in the first half, Marcus Sasser strained his groin after he slipped trying to make a move with the ball in his hands. Dickies Arena went completely silent as Sasser, the AAC’s Player of the Year, remained on the floor in obvious pain for a few minutes before walking off the court under his own power.

Sasser did not return to the game but did rejoin his teammates on the UH bench in the second half.

Sasser, who scored 30 points in UH’s win over East Carolina in Friday’s quarterfinal game, finished with four points in 10 minutes in the win over Cincinnati.

After the game, UH head coach Kelvin Sampson said Sasser was still being evaluated.

While Sasser’s status for Sunday is up in the air, Sampson said he would lean towards holding the 6-foot-2-inch guard out of the conference championship game.

“I would probably err on the side of holding out because of how important next week is,” Sampson said. “The most important thing is Marcus, not winning. That will always be the case with me. His health going forward is the most important thing here.”

The Cougars (31-2) will try to win their third consecutive conference tournament title on Sunday at 2:15 p.m., facing  No. 2 seed Memphis.

Sampson challenged his team coming into Saturday.

Though UH came out on top over East Carolina in Friday’s quarterfinal game, the 67-year-old head coach was not pleased with his team’s lackadaisical effort.

It was also a difficult day personally for Sampson, who revealed on Saturday that he coached Friday’s game just hours after finding out his twin sister Karen had passed away.

The Cougars answered their head coach’s call, coming out of the gates with high-intensity energy and effort, something that has become a patented characteristic of a Sampson-coached team.

“We did what we do,” Sampson said. “We were very disciplined on defense. We rebounded well, got the ball where it needed to go.”

J’Wan Roberts and Jarace Walker, who combined to go 1-of-11 shooting the day prior, led the charge.

Roberts cleaned up things on the offensive glass, turning the Cougars’ first two misses on Saturday into second-chance layups to open the game. 

After being held scoreless against East Carolina, Roberts finished with a game-high 16 points against the Bearcats. Roberts also pulled down eight boards.

“I’m not going to sit here and say I played good last game (against ECU),” Roberts said. “I could have done way better and I took that personal.”

Walker followed in Roberts’ footsteps, scoring nine of his 13 points in the first half to help UH build a 16-point lead.

Walker credited his bounce-back performance to having a defensive and rebounding-focused mindset entering Saturday’s game.

“I feel like that’s how basketball is supposed to be played,” Walker said. “Just getting the dirty work done early and just flowing the game from there.”

Despite Sasser going down, UH continued to expand its lead, getting it all the way up to 25 points late in the second half.

“It really shows how good our team is,” Roberts said. “A lot of people stepped up and that’s expected.”

Jamal Shead was his usual self, despite not having Sasser with him in the backcourt for most of the game. The UH point guard tied Roberts with a game-high 16 points while also dishing out nine assists.

“His playmaking just makes the game so easy for us,” Walker said when asked about Shead. “He puts us in the right spots. He gets us the ball where we want it, when we want it. He’s the perfect point guard.”

With the victory, UH picked up its AAC Tournament record 14th win.

The Cougars have now won 13 games in a row and 22 of their last 23.

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