With All-American Marcus Sasser watching from the bench, top-seeded Houston shook off Northern Kentucky for a 63-52 victory to open the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night.
Chants of “NKU!” and “Overrated!” filled Legacy Arena as the 16th-seeded Norse trailed by only three at halftime and made it 36-all with under 16 minutes to go against the Cougars (32-3).
But Houston pulled away behind 16 points from Jarace Walker, advancing to face ninth-seeded Auburn on Saturday.
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Now, all eyes turn to Sasser, the team’s top scorer and its first member of The Associated Press All-America first team since 1984.
After going down last weekend with a groin injury in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, Sasser was a game-time decision for the start of the NCAA Midwest Region.
He got the start and looked just fine when he knocked down an early 3-pointer. But Sasser didn’t do much else, finishing with five points on 2-of-5 shooting in just under 14 minutes of playing time.
When the second half began, Sasser wasn’t on the court. The school announced he had aggravated his groin problem, forcing him to watch the rest of the game from the bench.
The Cougars didn’t need him on this night. The Norse’s upset bid went down in a hail of clankers, the Horizon League champions shooting just 27.5% from the field (19 of 69) — including a horrendous 5 of 34 from 3-point range — to ruin any chance of becoming the next UMBC.
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The Retrievers remain the only 16th seed in NCAA history to knock off a No. 1 seed, shocking Virginia in 2018.
The Cougars avoided that fate but things figure to get much tougher in the next one, especially if Sasser can’t go.
Auburn knocked off No. 8 seed Iowa 83-75 and will have another de facto home game in the second round, playing just a two-hour drive from its campus.
The Cougars struggled offensively against Northern Kentucky’s matchup zone, which was unlike any defense they had seen this season. Houston led just 30-27 at halftime and finished well under its 75-point average coming into the game.
Sam Vinson scored 15 points to lead Northern Kentucky (22-13).
Northern Kentucky: The Norse have yet to win three NCAA Tournament appearances, losing as a 14th, 15th and now 16th seed.
Houston: The Cougars hardly looked like a national championship contender, and Sasser’s health makes a title run look even more tenuous.
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The Cougars will be playing Auburn for the first time since Dec. 8, 1982, when Houston’s “Phi Slama Jama” powerhouse featuring Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler prevailed 77-65 against the Charles Barkley-led Tigers. Overall, the teams have met just seven times, with the Cougars winning six. Auburn’s lone victory in the series came in 1962.