SAN ANTONIO – It didn’t matter that the University of Houston lost key players to injury during the season. It didn’t matter that top-seeded Arizona stood in their way.
For the second straight year, the Cougars are advancing to the Elite Eight, defeating the Wildcats 72-60 in NCAA play on Thursday night from the AT&T Center in San Antonio.
Jamal Shead scored a career-high 21 points and Houston led throughout over Arizona, moving the Cougars within one win of a second straight Final Four.
With Taze Moore getting into early foul trouble after his 3-pointer for a 5-0 lead in the first two minutes, Shead and Kyler Edwards were both on the court nearly the entire game for the Cougars (32-5). Edwards, the Texas Tech transfer who played in the 2019 national championship game for the Red Raiders, had 19 points with five 3-pointers.
After quick consecutive layups by Dalen Terry got Arizona within 64-58 with just over two minutes left, Edwards settled things for Houston with a 3 from the right wing.
No. 5 seed Houston plays second-seeded Villanova in the South Region final on Saturday in San Antonio, which is about 200 miles from the UH campus.
Terry had 17 points for the Wildcats (33-4), while Pac-12 player of the year Bennedict Mathurin had 15 and Christian Koloko 10,
The American Athletic Conference champion Cougars became the second former Southwest Conference team to knock a No. 1 seed out of this NCAA Tournament in a matter of hours. Top overall seed Gonzaga lost 74-68 to Arkansas, which went to the SEC in 1991, five years before the SWC’s final season.
These Cougars are much different than the ones coach Kelvin Sampson took the Final Four last year — their first since going three times in a row during the Phi Slama Jama era from 1982-84.
Houston lost four starters from last season and then lost Marcus Sasser, the lone returner and leading scorer who broke his left foot before Christmas. Sophomore guard Tramon Mark also had a season-ending shoulder injury.
Arizona had one of the least-experienced teams in Division I this season; according to KenPom.com, the Wildcats average 0.63 years of experienced, ranked 355th out of 358 teams. But they won 33 games, and two of their losses were on the road during the regular season against top-20 teams.
Those 33 wins left Tommy Lloyd one win shy of the most in NCAA history for a first-year coach. He took over the Wildcats after 21 seasons as an assistant coach for Mark Few at Gonzaga.
Houston stretched its lead to 10 points three different times before halftime.
The Wildcats missed seven of their first eight shots, and trailed by double digits for the first time after the Cougars scored seven points in a 57-second span for a 14-4 lead. That quick spurt included Shead getting a rebound to start a fastbreak that ended with his pass to Ramon Walker Jr. in the left corner for an open 3, and a driving layup by Edwards after a turnover.
Moore, a graduate transfer, had a career-high 21 points in Houston’s second-round win over Illinois, but his early 3 was all he’d score against the Wildcats. He committed his third personal foul with 9:22 left and played only 17 minutes overall.
Arizona was within 34-28 at halftime when Koloko made both free throws after a whistle and a replay review when 0.6 seconds were put back on the clock. Sampson and the Cougars thought the half was over, and Mathurin thought he had been fouled going for the rebound on Koloko’s miss as the buzzer sounded, but the refs ruled a foul on Koloko’s shot after looking at the replay.
When the Wildcats were down just two early in the second half, Edwards hit a 3-pointer. Terry hit a 3 a few minutes later to get Arizona within a bucket again, but Shead responded with another from long range.
Arizona: The Wildcats needed overtime to beat TCU in the second round, but they got off to the slow start shooting and never recovered Thursday. They shot 33% (18 of 54) and had 14 turnovers that Houston turned into 24 points.
Houston: The Cougars have been to six regional finals in the past. They won each time to advance to the Final Four.
Houston and Villanova haven’t played since the Cougars’ 79-49 win on November 23, 1991. The two teams have played twice in the NCAA Tournament — Houston won in 1983 and Villanova won in the 1981 tourney.