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Houston’s Tenacity Earns Sweet 16 Spot



With the Houston fans in attendance screaming “Sweet 16” Kyler Edwards buried a three-point shot, allowing the Cougars to advance, defeating Illinois 68-53 Sunday afternoon at PPG Paints Arena.

“This is a tough program,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “That’s how we’ve achieved to this be point. All of our players buy in, stand on the shoulders of the kids that came before them. I couldn’t be more proud. You know, you go into every game with a plan. Plans mean nothing if the players don’t believe in it and execute it. I thought our execution today at both ends was really good.”

Taze Moore led Houston with 21 points and also assisted a reporter that fell as he pursued a loose ball. Moore was able to assist in picking up the computer and offered a handshake. More importantly, Moore was 9-for-16 from the field and tied for high rebounding honors with seven.

Houston Cougars guard Taze Moore (4) March 20, 2022 David Hague/PSN

“It just shows that they believe in me, and I appreciate them, more than they ever know,” said Moore. “All those long nights that Coach Q (Quannas White) worked out with me and Coach Sampson yelling at me, it shows they want it for all of us. They know what we can do, and they try to pull it out of us every day in practice, even in the film room, at 7 a.m. when we have to go through walk-through.”

Jamal Shead scored 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting and his quickness posed problems for Illinois all game long. Even when the Fighting Illini would place a post player, Shead’s first step allowed him to find the basket. Edwards also was a key factor with his 15 points.

Kofi Cockburn led Illinois with his 19 points and eight rebounds.

Illinois Fighting Illini center Kofi Cockburn (21) March 20, 2022 David Hague/PSN

“No one knows how hard this team has come,” Illinois guard Trent Frazier said. “The hours we have spent is unbelievable. We have gone from fighting each other to beating each other up, competing at a high level. We fell short, but to see where this program has come two years in a row, top 32 teams, you know, it shows we are headed in the right direction.”

In the beginning stages of this contest, both teams played fast and rotated the ball around accordingly, but momentum quickly went in Houston’s direction.

The Cougars benefitted from second-chance rebounds to extend its offense and further frustrate their opponent, opening up a 12-point advantage in the process.

A lot of what worked for Illinois in Friday’s second-half comeback got in the way of its progress Sunday. Illinois went a little deeper with its rotation and played them for slightly longer.

Andre Curbelo who broke out during postseason play, was forcing up shots in an effort to get his team to come back but was 0-for-4 and a -11 in the first half. Following the contest, Underwood explained Curbelo had a piece of clothing worn Friday and in Sunday’s warmups but then he was told he could not wear it during the game.

Friday’s second-half hero Alfonso Plummer missed all five of his shots from the field in the opening 20 minutes and finished 2-of-10 from the field.

Instead, Illinois was able to get more out of Luke Goode and RJ Melendez.

Melendez was able to snap a nearly five-minute scoreless streak for the Fighting Illini and his five points were a difference, especially when Houston was unable to gain any points from its bench.

Goode made both of his three-point shot attempts in the first half, which coincidentally was when Illinois made its lone run of the opening half.

Despite a Trent Frazier three-point basket in the closing seconds, Houston held a 30-26 lead at halftime.

Houston Cougars guard Jamal Shead (1) March 20, 2022 David Hague/PSN

In the second half, Underwood made the decision to bench Curbelo, to which the later showed clear displeasure with his body language on the bench. Underwood was mum on details of the decision, leaving it as “a coach’s decision”.

Houston maintained its lead early in the second half, but Illinois used a 7-2 run to briefly tie the game, before the Cougars went back on the attack to the tune of a 6-0 barrage of its own.

Illinois appeared to get back in the swing of things when Melendez made a dunk on a fastbreak, but with official Brian O’Connell watching, hung on a bit too much for the latter’s liking and a technical foul was issued as Illini fans began to roar with approval.

The call was met with disdain from the overwhelming majority of those in attendance.

Illinois was briefly able to channel this in a positive manner cutting the game to two points, but Houston would score the next seven points.

An 11-0 run would secure Houston’s spot in the Sweet 16.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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