The fifth-placed Houston Cougars had taken two easy wins after their 15-day hiatus from team activities caused by a COVID-19 outbreak, but an inevitable test awaited them.
That challenge came Saturday night in Orlando in the form of a UCF team running off a street that was then No. 15 in the state of Florida. Despite a few irregular moments, Houston (7-0, 2-0 Americans) found a way to pull out a 63:54 win that kept their perfect record intact.
“I refuse to overreact when we play badly or really well because we just haven’t had enough time to go to the gym together,” said Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson.
“I was proud that we found a way to win the game. I think that says a lot about our culture and the way our kids are built.”
Houston will face Tulsa at the Reynolds Center on Tuesday, armed with its talented guards. Injuries and the coronavirus had devastated the Houston backcourt to varying degrees, but against UCF, the Cougars turned to their most skilled hands for rescue.
While security guard Marcus Sasser paced the cougars with 19 points, it was security guard Caleb Mills who helped get the cougars home with seven of his 12 points.
Mills was the only Houston player to score a field goal in the last seven minutes and carry the offensive just long enough until Houston finished 2:24 against the free throw line 11:11 in the final to end the triumph. Guard DeJon Jarreau sank the last four free throws.
“This game is a lesson for us,” said Mills, “even though we won.”
Tulsa (4-3, 1-1 American) celebrated their third straight win on December 23rd with a 102-45 drubbing against Southwestern Christian. The Golden Hurricane lost its first game after two postponements, a 69-65 setback at the Wichita State conference, but has recovered in good shape.
In the home win against the Eagles, newcomer Keshawn Williams and senior Manny Ugboh achieved career highs of 20 and 13 points, respectively. This duo shot a combined 14 out of 15 off the ground, with Williams adding nine assists and six rebounds.
Tulsa coach Frank Haith, whose 120th win at Tulsa brought him to third place in program history after Nolan Richardson, used 14 players for the easy win, 13 of them in the competition. It was the last scheduled non-conference game of the season for the hurricane and a preparation for the challenges that will arise from the rest of the American conference.
“I’ve been part of a few games like this in the past and they are ragged,” said Haith. “I want to applaud our boys for playing it right.
“There were some things we wanted to achieve in the game. I really wanted Keshawn Williams and Keyshawn Embery to have a few minutes on the 1, so we let Eli (guard Elijah Joiner) rest. We needed a lot of people to do them to get.” Judgment time and I’m really encouraged by what I’ve seen. Hopefully we can keep growing over the holidays. “
– Field level media