With All-American Marcus Sasser watching from the bench, top-seeded Houston disposed of Northern Kentucky for a 63-52 victory to open the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night.
Chants of «NKU!» and «Overrated!» packed Legacy Arena as the 16th-seeded Norse trailed by just three at halftime and made it 36-3 with less than 16 minutes to go against the Cougars (32-3).
But Houston pulled away with 16 points from Jarace Walker and advanced to face ninth-seeded Auburn on Saturday.
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Now, all eyes turn to Sasser, the team’s leading scorer and its first Associated Press All-America first-team member since 1984.
After going down last weekend with a groin injury in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, Sasser was a game-time decision for the NCAA Midwest Region starter.
He started early and looked good when he hit an early 3-pointer. But Sasser didn’t do much else, finishing with five points on 2-of-5 shooting in just under 14 minutes of playing time.
When the second half began, Sasser was not on the court. The school announced that he had aggravated his groin problem, forcing him to watch the rest of the game from the bench.
The Cougars didn’t need him tonight. The Nordicos’ surprise offer turned into a barrage of clankers, the Horizon League champions shooting just 27.5% from the field (19-of-69), including a horrendous 5-of-34 from 3-point range, for ruin any chance of becoming the next UMBC. .
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The Retrievers remain the only No. 16 seed in NCAA history to beat a No. 1 seed, upsetting Virginia in 2018.
The Cougars avoided that fate, but it looks like things will get a lot tougher next time, especially if Sasser can’t go.
Auburn eliminated No. 8 seed Iowa 83-75 and will have another de facto home game in the second round, playing just a two-hour drive from their campus.
The Cougars struggled offensively against Northern Kentucky’s matchup zone, which was unlike any defense they had seen this season. Houston led just 30-27 at halftime and finished well below its 75-point average to start the game.
Sam Vinson scored 15 points to lead Northern Kentucky (22-13).
Northern Kentucky: The Nordics are yet to win three NCAA Tournament appearances, losing as seeds 14, 15 and now 16.
Houston: The Cougars barely looked like a national championship contender, and Sasser’s health makes the title race look even more tenuous.
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The Cougars will play Auburn for the first time since December 8, 1982, when Houston’s «Phi Slama Jama» powerhouse of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler prevailed 77-65 against the Charles Barkley-led Tigers. Overall, the teams have met just seven times, with the Cougars winning six. Auburn’s only series victory came in 1962.