HOUSTON — The Houston Cougars entered Wednesday night as one of the most efficient teams in college basketball.
UH knows how to make 3-pointers (43.4 percent through four games), hold onto the ball (seventh lowest turnover percentage in the country per Kenpom.com) and grab 38.5 percent of its offensive rebounding opportunities, which is good for 19th best out of 353 Division I teams.
UTRGV flipped Houston’s sparkling numbers on its head in the first half. An active and swarming Vaquero defense forced the Cougars to miss 10 of their first 11 3-point attempts. The Vaqueros outrebounded the Cougars by 10, including 12 offensive rebounds during the first 20 minutes. UH also committed five first-half turnovers compared to UTRGV’s six.
“We made them drive and run off the 3-point line,” UTRGV coach Lew Hill said. “We had to make them beat us with twos. I felt like they needed threes to beat us.”
With the score tied at 50 and less than a minute to go in regulation, Houston point guard Galen Robinson Jr. nailed a wide open 3-pointer in the right corner with 47 seconds left to put the Cougars ahead to stay. The Cougars finished the night 6 of 23 on 3-pointers, but Houston still downed UTRGV 58-53 at Texas Southern University’s H&PE Arena.
“Every shot we got was wide open. Those are shots we make,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “But you know, Furman won at Villanova. Radford won at Notre Dame, IUPUI won at Boston College and Texas Southern just won at Oregon. That’s how you lose these games. Those (losing) teams on those nights played like we played tonight and that’s why I’m proud of my team.”
UTRGV led 23-21 at the half and spent much of the second half trading baskets with Houston. The Vaqueros and Cougars changed leads 15 times in the final 20 minutes. Jordan Jackson was the team’s top scorer with 12 points, followed by Greg Bowie II and Lesley Varner II who scored eight points each.
“We’re not the biggest team or the most athletic team, but we play with an attitude and a nastiness,” Hill said. “We had been playing well defensively. We just needed to pick up the rebounding.”
The Vaqueros (5-4) ended the night with a 43-39 edge in the rebounding department, thanks in part to guards Jackson (nine) and Javon Levi (eight) and forwards Varner II (eight) and Terry Winn III (seven).
“We had four people with seven to nine rebounds tonight, which is something we haven’t had in a while,” Jackson said. “Attacking the boards and giving them (Houston) one shot kept us in it.”
Houston (5-0) extended its home winning streak to 19 games at Texas Southern’s on-campus arena. H&PE Arena served as the Cougars’ home court while the Fertitta Center was renovated.
Wednesday was UH’s final game at TSU. The Fertitta Center will be open for business Saturday when the Cougars host the Oregon Ducks.
“If the University of Houston was ever in a position to host another university like they (Texas Southern) did us, I hope we’d treat that school like Texas Southern treated us,” Sampson said. “It’s not easy to go 19-0. From (previous wins against) Arkansas to Wichita State to Cincinnati and SMU, we beat a lot of good teams in this building and created a lot of memories. Those are games I’ll never forget.”
Jackson, a Houston native, won’t soon forget Wednesday’s game either. He added three steals and two blocks to an already impressive statline in front of friends and family.
“For them to be able to experience this game and for me to play in it was great,” Jackson said. “This is the first time I’ve played at home since college. I hate that it ended this way, but we gave them a great show. My teammates and I left it all out there on the floor.”