The Cougars, seeded No. 5, advanced to the round of 16 for the third consecutive championship with 68-53 victory against Illinois, seeded 5th, on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh. Houston, who lost in the semifinals last year to eventual national champion, Baylor, advanced to meet the winner in Sunday night’s game between #1 seed Arizona and Texas Christian #9 in the Southern District.
“I think these guys are standing on the shoulders of all these guys before them,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, who made it to the Round of 16 for the sixth time in his career, said in a TV interview. “They believe in our culture. We talk about watering the trees. We don’t water the leaves. We water the roots, the roots in this program are our culture, and every one of these kids buys it. That’s why we’re successful.”
Houston (31-5), the U.S. Athletics Championships champion, hasn’t beaten a number-one seed in the tournament since the 1984 final, when Hakim Olaywan and Clyde Drexler were the star Cougars. Illinois lost (23-10) in the second round for the second year in a row after being among the top seed. In 2021, Loyola Chicago was upset about being the top seed.
Three of last year’s Final Four teams qualified for the round of 16, with Gonzaga and UCLA winning on Saturday. Baylor lost on Saturday to North Carolina, which means the defending champion is now down before the Round of 16 for five straight years.
Sampson lost all five players last season who advanced or had injuries. Quentin Grimes, a key player on last year’s squad, now plays for the Knicks. Rookie goalkeeper Marcus Sasser, who scored 20 points in the semi-finals last year, fell to injury at the end of the season, as did second-choice goalkeeper Tramon Mark.
With that said, Houston maintained its trademark defensive intensity, often looking as if it had seven defenders on the floor instead of five. Cougars have limited Illinois to 34 percent of shooting from the field. Houston used 11-0 to lead, 65-49, and made the match out of the way.
Offensively, number one Taz Moore was outstanding on the open field, finishing the game with 21 points and 7 rebounds. Jamal Shedd scored 18 and Texas Tech’s 2019 Final Four member Keeler Edwards scored 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists.
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