The Houston Cougars found themselves in an unusual dilemma during the opening moments of Saturday’s matchup with SMU.
With Aubrey Coleman unable to figure out the Mustang’s 2-3 zone defense, the Cougars needed someone else to carry the offensive load.
Coleman’s on-the-court sidekick, Kelvin Lewis, did just that.
Lewis scored a season-high 29 points on 9-of-18 shooting, allowing UH to overcome a below-average performance from Coleman and capture a 66-60 victory at Hofheinz Pavilion.
Lewis, who matched his career high with seven 3-pointers, was the focal point of the Cougars’ offense from tip-off.
“Today, everybody was really looking for me,” Lewis said. “I was just trying to lull them to sleep.
“I knew (my shot) was going to start to come around.”
Coleman, who finished with 16 points on 5-of-16 shooting, missed his first five field-goal attempts and had only two points at halftime. But because Lewis put up 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting, UH (13-11, 5-5 Conference USA) held a 31-26 advantage.
After slowing Lewis’ production and gaining control of the tempo in the second half, the Mustangs (11-13, 4-6 C-USA) were able to erase an 11-point deficit. But for the second straight game, the Cougars — including Coleman — delivered in crunch time by making free throws and playing intense defense.
Lewis believes UH is simply reaping the results of focusing on areas that plagued it in losses.
“Recently, we’ve been stressing the little things like … getting the 50-50 ball and hustle plays.” Lewis said. “Those are the differences between winning and losing.”
Those little things also include free throws and protecting the ball. The Cougars committed a season-low two turnovers and made 18 of 20 attempts from the charity stripe.
Despite UH’s success in these areas, it still had to battle hard for the win.
Robert Nyakundi made a free throw with 1:50 left in the game to give SMU a 57-56 advantage.
Coleman answered by sinking a step-back jumper that gave the Cougars a 58-57 lead with 1:31 remaining.
Coleman then committed a lane violation on the other end of the court, giving Papa Dia an extra free-throw attempt. Dia took advantage of the opportunity, sinking the shot to tie the game at 58 with 1:16 left to play.
After Coleman drew a blocking foul and made two free throws on the Cougars’ next possession, UH came up with a huge defensive stop to keep its lead at 60-58.
SMU was forced to foul at this point, but Lewis and Zamal Nixon made a combined six four free throws in the final 45 seconds to preserve the victory.
“Kelvin showed today why he’s such a valuable part of our team,” Penders said. “If he was really on today, I think he would’ve scored 40 or 50.”
Aubrey Coleman came out of halftime in attack mode, scoring six of the Cougars’ first nine points in the second half. This surge, combined with 3-pointers from Sean Coleman and Lewis, pushed UH’s lead to 43-32 with 14:56 remaining.
SMU answered with an 11-2 run, capped by a Justin Haynes layup, to cut its deficit to 45-43 with 10:21 left to play.
With Aubrey Coleman unable to drive to the basket because of SMU’s zone, Lewis dominated in the first half Saturday. Lewis was hot from the beginning of the game, nailing three of his first four 3-point attempts to help UH jump out to a 13-5 lead with 13:45 left before halftime.
But the Mustangs and fired back with a 15-3 run to take a 20-16 lead with 6:42 remaining in the first. Mouhammad Faye led that charge, scoring eight of his 10 first-half points during this stretch.
Meanwhile, the Cougars had no solution for SMU’s 2-3 zone defense, as they repeatedly settled for perimeter shots with the shot clock winding down. After beginning the game four-of-five from the field, UH missed 12 of its next 13 shot attempts.
However, it didn’t take much time before the Cougars were able to get the ball in Lewis’ hands again. He scored seven points in the final 5:01 of the half, leading the Cougars on a 15-6 run that gave them a 31-26 advantage at halftime.
The Cougars will attempt to extend their win streak to three games when they take on Central Florida at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Orlando, Fla.