BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Houston coach Kelvin Sampson didn’t sense panic in his players as they trailed Auburn by 10 points at halftime in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Birmingham. So he chose not to light into his team as it gathered in the locker room.
“Sometimes it’s not always about fussin’ and cussin’ and hollerin’ at them,” Sampson said. “I didn’t do that. I just said, ‘If we play our defense, we can get back in this game.'”
And he was right. The Cougars’ defense dialed up the pressure and the Tigers wilted, going cold from the field and ice cold from the free throw line. No. 1 seed Houston needed only seven minutes to take the lead in the second half and ended up running away with a 81-64 win over No. 9 seed Auburn.
Sampson explained that the Cougars didn’t make a ton of changes to the game plan during the intermission. He said he challenged injured guards Marcus Sasser (groin) and Jamal Shead (leg) to worry less about their health and more about competing.
“The biggest adjustment was in our attitude,” Sampson said. “Sometimes that’s the most important thing.”
But, schematically, the Cougars did switch more on defense and contested more shots. They finished with four steals and 12 blocks. Auburn was 4-of-24 on field goal attempts in the second half.
On offense, Sampson said they ran fewer designed plays, spreading the floor and making the most of one-on-one opportunities.
When Sasser, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, went to the bench with four fouls, junior guard Tramon Mark thrived in isolation, taking advantage of his size against the smaller Auburn defenders and racking up a team-high 26 points.
“I just realized I could get anything I wanted,” Mark said. “Coach trusted me, and I continued to go after them.”
Sasser said it was exactly the kind of performance he expected from Mark. He, too saw a change in attitude from his teammates coming out of halftime.
“We didn’t want to go home,” Sasser said. “We wanted this season to go on as long as possible.”
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl acknowledged that his team “didn’t respond” when Houston went on its run in the second half, saying the Tigers weren’t prepared the Cougars’ aggressive play.
Going 19-of-36 from the free throw line was particularly frustrating.
“But what’s more frustrating is it’s something you can’t control,” Pearl said.
Pearl said the plan coming into the game was solid.
“I kind of wish it was a 20-minute game instead of 40,” he said.