CINCINNATI — The Cougars made just three shots in the final 16:16 of its game against Xavier Friday night, but it didn’t matter. No. 6 Houston escaped a packed Cintas Center with an ugly, 66-60 win over the Xavier Musketeers in the Big East-Big 12 Battle.
The Cougars committed nine fouls in the first eight minutes of the second half to allow Xavier to erase a 13-point deficit and take a 52-51 lead with 6:57 left. 50 fouls were called between resulting in 55 free throws from both teams.
After missing five straight free throws to start the second half, the Cougars made 14 of their next 16 foul shots. It proved just enough as Houston made just three field goals in the final 16:16. Senior guards Jamal Shead and LJ Cryer as well as graduate guard Damian Dunn combined to score 13 of UH’s last 20 points.
With under two minutes to go, Cryer and Shead each hit short pull-up jumpers to extend what was a three-point lead to seven, effectively sealing the game.
“First road game; tough environment. I don’t think we played very good. Xavier played hard,” said head coach Kelvin Sampson after the game. “The best thing about tonight was that we found a way to win.”
In perhaps a preview of future Big 12 road atmospheres, the outside of the Cintas Center was lined by camped-out Xavier students as early as 12:30 p.m. EST when UH began shootaround. The student section was filled to the brim within 30 minutes of being let into the stadium at 5 o’clock. By the time the game tipped off at 6:30, few of the 10,250 seats in the arena were empty.
“Kudos to Xavier basketball. They didn’t come out to see us play,” Sampson said of the crowd. “Their crowd impacted the game in many ways.”
Cryer got the Cougars off to a hot start hitting his first three three-pointers to put the Cougars up front 16-4 early.
The Xavier crowd finally woke up midway through the first half when the Musketeers went on a 13-4 run to close the gap to within three points and eventually took its first lead on a pair of free throws to go up 25-24. UH went over five minutes without a point.
With Xavier leading the rebounding battle and senior forward J’Wan Roberts resting, freshman forward Joseph Tugler came up with five critical boards in the final 5:35 of the first half to put UH on top 36-31 at halftime.
Much like the first half, the Cougars went on a dominant 10-2 run to start the second half, but foul trouble and just one point, including five missed free throws, in a seven-minute span put Xavier on top 52-51 with 6:57 to play before closing it out.
“We had a lot of good looks in those droughts,” Sampson said. “I don’t worry about droughts. I worry about shot selection, and we were getting good shots.”
For the first time this season, Houston was outrebounded 42-39, but won the board battle in the second half, 22-17 including eight offensive rebounds.
“The rebounding in the second half mattered,” Sampson said. “They were hurting us (in the first half).”
Cryer led all scorers with 23 points on 8-16 shooting, while Roberts grabbed a game-high 12 boards.
Houston stayed undefeated to start the season at 8-0 and will play crosstown rival Rice at home on Wednesday.