PITTSBURGH – Kyler Edwards scored 25 points, Fabian White Jr. added 14 and Houston looked like a team capable of making another deep run in March as it opened the NCAA Tournament with an 82-68 win over UAB on Friday night.
Edwards, who played three years at Texas Tech before transferring to Houston, made six 3-pointers — the last an exclamation point in the final minute — and controlled the fast tempo.
The Cougars (30-5) advanced in the South Region and will play fourth-seeded Illinois on Sunday for a spot in the Sweet 16. The Fighting Illini rallied to beat Chattanooga 54-53 and avoid a second straight early-round exit.
Houston made it to the Final Four a year ago but doesn’t have a single starter left from that squad, which lost to eventual champion Baylor in the semifinals. But that’s hardly declawed the high-powered Cougars, who have won 10 of 11 — nine by double digits.
Coach Kelvin Sampson brought in Edwards and has two other transfer starters — Taze Moore (Cal State-Bakersfield) and Josh Carlton (Connecticut) — on a team that can dazzle on offense and play nose-to-nose defense when it needs to.
The Blazers (27-8) did all they could to stay close to Houston, but any time UAB threatened, the Cougars answered with a layup, dunk or 3-pointer.
UAB’s leading scorer Jordan “Jelly” Walker had a rough night while maybe trying to do too much to keep his team close. He finished with 17 points on 6-of-18 shooting and had five turnovers.
Unlike the Illinois-Chattanooga slugfest, Houston and UAB came out flying.
The Cougars, who put on a dunking show in warmups that would make their school’s famed Phi Slamma Jamma alumni teams proud, made seven of their nine 3-pointers and opened a 34-16 lead.
One of those 3s came from Jamal Shead, who after banking in his long shot yelled to his teammates, “I called it.”
Houston also showed why it came into the tournament as the nation’s leader in field-goal percentage defense. The Cougars were giving the Blazers no easy looks early.
However, the Blazers regrouped and responded with a late 10-4 burst to close within 46-37 at the half.
SECOND TO ONE
Houston is often overlooked in discussions about college basketball’s top programs. But the numbers support the Cougars’ excellence.
Since 2017, only Gonzaga (151-15) has a better record than Houston (142-29). Kansas and Villanova are third and fourth, respectively.