Commentary Men's Basketball Sports

Despite loss, Cougars took another step forward with grit, toughness

Senior guard Rob Gray’s last-second layup while playing San Diego State in the first round gave him a career high of 39 points and Houston’s first win in the NCAA tournament since 1984. | Courtesy of UH Athletics

Heartbreaking. Gut-wrenching. Tragic.

There are many ways to describe how the Michigan Wolverines ended UH’s Sweet Sixteen dreams on Saturday with a single buzzer-beating three-pointer.

But fans and band-wagoners alike need appreciate how far this team came, and for that, we must look at where it began and how much was expected of it at the beginning of the year.

When the season started, major outlets, including Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports and more, projected UH would finish just sixth or seventh in the conference.

Wichita and Cincinnati were the favorites, but UCF and SMU would be able to challenge them. Temple and UConn could be dark horses. But Houston? The Cougars could end up in the top five if Rob Gray played at his best, but that was all Houston was projected to be.

Five seniors graduated out of the program last year, leaving behind just four of the nine players who made up the Cougars’ main rotation in 2016-17.¬† But the new lineup did not slow down, and the team evolved and improved.

Senior guard Rob Gray Jr. improved his passing and vision while leading the team in scoring. Senior forward Devin Davis improved in nearly every way, from scoring to rebounding to blocking. Junior guard Galen Robinson Jr. was a key pivot point on the team’s set plays, and if not for Gray’s standout season, he would have led the team in assists. Sophomore guard Armoni Brooks came off the bench and was one of the best three-point shooters in the conference.

The list goes on and on about each player’s improvements. The team¬†played with grit and toughness, which sometimes got it into foul trouble, but also enabled it to defeat tougher, bigger opponents such as Cincinnati and Wichita.

As the commentators for the AAC championship said again and again, the Cougars make for a short team. UH is the 319th-tallest in Division 1 basketball out of 351 teams. Despite the size disadvantage, Houston still managed to make the final 32 teams, and only a couple of points separated the Cougars from making the Sweet Sixteen.

The Cougars were not a perfect team, but they didn’t need to be.

They beat a top 10 team for the first time since 1994 not once but twice this season. They went to the NCAA tournament for just the second time in the last 26 years, and they won their first tournament game in 34 years.

Gray put on one of the best performances in school history when he scored 39 points in the historic victory against San Diego, redeeming himself for his error in the conference championship game.

It’s moments like these that build a connection between the players, the fans, future recruits and the city.

For the City. The motto of this team since Hurricane Harvey has been all about playing for a city where so many didn’t have much to look forward to.

This season has revitalized interest, and at least a dozen people have asked me, “When do they play next? Who should I look out for? Where can I watch the game?”

I hope when next season starts and the Fertitta Center opens, all these fans, new and old, pack the place so the players can get the ovation they deserve.

For the team.

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