HOUSTON – Gary Clark put Cincinnati ahead for good with a free throw with 4.3 seconds remaining and the eight-ranked Bearcats held on Sunday for a 56-55 victory over No. 21 Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship.
Clark finished with 20 points and the league regular-season champions rescued themselves for the second straight day with a stellar second-half performance, limiting Houston to 20 percent shooting and 18 points after halftime.
Cincinnati (30-4) earned the AAC's automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament with its first conference tournament championship since the Bearcats won Conference USA in 2004.
Houston (26-7), which split a pair of games against Cincinnati during the regular season, lost for just the third time in its last 15 games and is headed to the NCAA Tournament, too.
Rob Gray led the Cougars with 17 points but missed a long 3-pointer in the closing seconds, then had a turnover that cost Houston a chance to try to win the game after Clark made one of two free throws after rebounding Gray's miss.
Corey Davis Jr., who had 15 points for Houston, went scoreless after helping the Cougars to a 37-35 halftime lead. Devin Davis added 13, including a jumper and layup that turned a one-point deficit into a 55-52 lead with 1:34 remaining.
Kyle Washington's 3-pointer tied the game for the final time, setting the stage for a suspenseful finish.
Houston made just 6 of 30 shots in the second half. Gray finished six of 22 from the field after scoring 33 in the Cougars' victory over Wichita State in the semifinals. His unforced error, a wild pass behind teammate Galen Robinson Jr., sailed out of bounds with 1 second left.
Cincinnati didn't shoot the ball much better after halftime, going six for 18. That didn't stop the Bearcats from getting it done on the other end, though.
The Bearcats rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to beat Memphis 70-60 in Saturday's semifinals, outscoring the Tigers 41-18 in the final 20 minutes.
Houston becomes the fourth team coach Kelvin Sampson has led to the NCAA Tournament, joining Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana. The Cougars appeared in the NIT the past two seasons.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, will receive its eighth straight NCAA berth under coach Mick Cronin, who is in his 12th season with the Bearcats.
Houston: The Cougars, who have won 12 of 15 following a 2-2 start to January, are one of the hottest teams in the country. That could make them dangerous entering the NCAA Tournament.
Houston Cougars will play San Diego State on Thursday at 6:20 p.m. on TBS.