Men's Basketball Sports

Top-seeded UH survives major scare from Northern Kentucky in NCAA Tournament opener

UH, the Midwest Region's top seed, defeated 16-seed Northern Kentucky on Thursday night at Legacy Arena to advance to play No. 9 seed Auburn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. | Anh Le/The Cougar

UH, the Midwest Region’s top seed, defeated 16-seed Northern Kentucky on Thursday night at Legacy Arena to advance to play No. 9 seed Auburn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. | Anh Le/The Cougar

BIRMINGHAM, Ala — A year ago Emanuel Sharp watched the NCAA Tournament from the bench. 

On Thursday night, the redshirt freshman guard was the one hitting the big shots to help the Midwest Region’s top-seed survive a major scare from 16-seed Northern Kentucky.

Up 41-38 with just under 12 minutes left, J’Wan Roberts threw a cross-court pass to Sharp, who rose up and drained a 3.

On the next trip down the court, Sharp called for the ball and pulled up with his feet on the edge of the midcourt March Madness logo.


“Seeing that first one go through, it gave me the confidence I needed to shoot the next one,” Sharp said.

Minutes later, Sharp hit a tough floater with the shot clock winding down.

Houston did just enough from there, squeaking past Northern Kentucky 63-52 at Legacy Arena to advance to play No. 9 seed Auburn on Saturday at 6:10 p.m. for a ticket to the Sweet 16. 

“We lived to fight another day,” said UH head coach Kelvin Sampson. “That’s what this is about this time of year.”

More injuries

Back in the starting lineup, Marcus Sasser, recently named a first-team All-American by the Associated Press, reaggravated the groin injury he suffered against Cincinnati American Athletic Conference Tournament semifinals when he pulled up for a mid-range jumper with 1:48 left in the first half. 

“I think I just planted hard on my left leg and it just aggravated it again,” Sasser said

Sasser went to the UH bench in obvious pain and did not return to the court.

After entering Thursday listed as a game-time decision, Sasser said he felt healthy and painless prior to tip-off.

“I was ready to go,” Sasser said. “I didn’t have no pain really. I warmed up hard. Got a lot of treatment right before it. I was good, ready to play.”

Sasser wasn’t the only Cougar to get banged up.

Jamal Shead, who played with a noticeable limp in the second half, said he hyperextended his right knee, in the first half against the Norse.

“It was just bugging me,” Shead said. “I kind of had a limp.” 

Despite the injury, Shead said he will definitely play against Auburn on Saturday.

“Everybody has bumps and bruises during this time of year,” Shead said. “Just going to go out there and give it my all. We only got a couple of games left. (I) don’t want to miss anything.”

Avoiding a historic upset

Exactly five years ago, the University of Baltimore-Maryland County became the first 16-seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament to knock off a No.1 seed.

UH came dangerously close to being the second No. 1 seed to find itself on the wrong side of history on Thursday night.

In a matchup between David and Goliath, it was the 16th seed that landed the first blow.

Northern Kentucky beat UH at its own game early on, outworking the Cougars on the glass and forcing turnovers. 

“They were tougher than we were tonight,” Sampson said. “And that’s not easy for me to say.”

In the game’s first 10 minutes, the Norse had seven second-chance points and no turnovers. UH, on the other hand, committed four turnovers while not having any second-chance points.

Northern Kentucky finished with 21 second-chance points on 18 offensive rebounds.

“I feel like they wanted it more,” Roberts said. “(They were) attacking the glass way harder than we were. We have to own up to that.”

The Cougars put together a pair of 6-0 runs to take a 30-27 lead into the half. Roberts and Jarace Walker combined for 17 of UH’s first-half points.

Tied at 36 with 13:56 remaining in the second half, Jamal Shead hit a 3-pointer, sparking an 11-3 UH run.

The Cougars never gave up the lead from there.

Walker led UH with 16 points.

Roberts notched his seventh double-double of the season, scoring 11 points and pulling down 12 rebounds.

“J’Wan was probably the only guy that I thought played hard-nosed, tough Cougar basketball,” Sampson said.

Shead finished with 13 points and six assists.

The Cougars improved to 5-0 in the NCAA Tournament under Sampson.

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