Believe it or not, the Houston Cougars need only one more win to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992.
The Cougars’ Cinderella run through the Conference USA Tournament continued Friday, as seventh-seeded UH defeated sixth-seeded Southern Miss, 74-66, at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.
“That was a very hard-earned win. We were very concerned, the coaches were, about them getting off to a lead early because they can grind it out,” head coach Tom Penders said. “They’ve got a great possession team. They make you work on defense. They try to wear you down.”
After strong play from the bench helped the Cougars (18-15) recover from an early eight-point deficit in the first half, UH’s starters stepped up in the second half to earn a chance at the 2010 C-USA Championship.
But standing in the Cougars’ way is top-seeded UTEP (26-5), which notched its 16th consecutive victory with a win over tournament-host Tulsa on Friday. The Miners suffered their only loss to a C-USA opponent this season in Houston, 75-65, on Jan. 13.
UH and UTEP will square off at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in a game that will be broadcast on CBS (Channel 11 in Houston).
Aubrey Coleman scored only six points in the first half Friday, but found holes in the Golden Eagles’ defense after halftime. He finished with a game-high 27 points in 40 minutes of action, despite playing on legs that had played almost 80 minutes over the previous two days.
“Our team is full of workhorses. I know I’m the number one workhorse on the team, so I never get tired,” Coleman said. “I never get winded and that’s why I never worry.
“Our legs are still under us. No excuses. We’re here now. No excuses.”
Coleman’s success in the early part of the second half helped UH gain control of the tempo, after Southern Miss’ stingy defensive effort kept the Cougars starters from finding any offensive rhythm in the first half. Coleman constantly attacked the basket, forcing the Golden Eagles into running with UH.
“I thought our kids were really patient, and that was a key,” Penders said. “We didn’t take but one or two pressured or rushed shots all game, and we didn’t do a really good job defending, especially late in the first half. There were a few mismatch things we had to straighten out.”
Not much time passed before Coleman and Desmond Wade found Kelvin Lewis open in transition for a pair of 3-pointers. Lewis (12 points, four rebounds) and Coleman combined to score 18 of the Cougars’ first 20 points of the second half.
Each one of the Cougars who came off the bench contributed to UH’s point total, most notably Adam Brown, who scored 13 points in 16 minutes of action. Brown lit a fire under the Cougars’ defense, screaming at his teammates to “pick it up” after they started the game in a sluggish manner.
“I thought Adam was big,” Penders said. “He was a big lift. We went to the four guards and it provided a difficult matchup for them and their defense. We just thought we’d try it and see how it worked because Adam is one of those guys who once he gets going, he can be tough.”
Gary Flowers (24 pts. on 10-of-24 shooting, 10 rebs.) scored 21 of the Golden Eagles’ first 42 points and helped them get going on the offensive end in the first half. Flowers’ effort in the paint was almost enough to lift Southern Miss (20-13) to victory, but he could not regain the shooting accuracy he found in the first half.
But Flowers wasn’t the only one who crashed the boards for Southern Miss, which scored 20 second-chance points. The Golden Eagles were active after nearly every missed shot for most of the game, dominating the offensive glass by a 21-11 margin.
In the closing minutes, however, Maurice McNeil grabbed two huge offensive boards that resulted in three free throws and pushed a 61-59 lead to 64-59 with 1:05 left.
UH held a 59-52 edge with 7:09 left, but Southern Miss became more physical on defense to close the gap to 61-59 with 2:48 remaining. The Cougars began to shy away from the lane somewhat during this period, leading to ill-advised shots.
But after Coleman misfired on a 3-pointer with 2:15 left, McNeil stormed to the paint, yanked down the rebound and drew a foul on Flowers. After two free throws from McNeil, the Cougars never led by less than three.
UH staved off a furious charge from the Golden Eagles by making 11 of 14 free-throw attempts in the final 1:30 of the game.
“You always have to come in and do your part. And we do our part,” Brown said. “And I feel like whenever we put all our parts together, we can always win.”
The Golden Eagles crashed the boards with aggression at the start of the first half, grabbing seven offensive rebounds in the first eight minutes. This intensity led to easy buckets, making it difficult for the Cougars to create transition opportunities.
Flowers benefited the most, scoring 11 of Southern Miss’ first 17 points. That included a stretch when he scored nine in a row for the Golden Eagles, including a 3 from the strong-side corner that gave them a 17-10 lead with 8:30 left before halftime.
With UH trailing 20-12, Penders went to Brown, who proceeded to give the Cougars a much-needed burst of energy on defense. He also nailed three deep jumpers to effectively open the lane for his teammates during a 19-4 run that put UH up 29-24 with 1:14 remaining in the first.