Men’s NCAA Tournament: Houston Advances to Round of 16

By | March 20, 2022

One year after reaching the Final Four of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Houston is making another run. This time, it is doing it with five new starters and an overhauled roster.

The Cougars, a No. 5 seed, advanced to the round of 16 for the third straight tournament with a 68-53 victory over fifth-seeded Illinois on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh. Houston, which lost in last year’s national semifinals to the eventual national champion, Baylor, advanced to meet the winner of Sunday night’s game between No. 1 Arizona and No. 9 Texas Christian in the South regional.

“I just think these guys stand on the shoulders of all those players that came before them,” Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson, who advanced to the round of 16 for the sixth time in his career, said in a television interview. “They believe in our culture. We talk about watering trees. We don’t water leaves; we water roots, and the roots in this program is our culture, and every one of these kids buys into it. That’s why we’re successful.”

Houston (31-5), the American Athletic Conference tournament champion, had not beaten a single-digit seed in the tournament since the 1984 Final Four, when Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler were the Cougars’ stars. Illinois (23-10) lost in the second round for the second straight year after being among the top seeds. In 2021, it was upset by Loyola Chicago as a No. 1 seed.

Three of last year’s Final Four teams have advanced to the round of 16, with Gonzaga and UCLA having won Saturday. Baylor lost Saturday to North Carolina, meaning the defending champion has now lost before the round of 16 for five years straight.

Sampson lost all five of last year’s starters, who either moved on or suffered injuries. Quentin Grimes, a key player on last year’s team, now plays for the Knicks. The junior guard Marcus Sasser, who scored 20 points in last year’s national semifinal, went down with a season-ending injury, as did the sophomore guard Tramon Mark.

Still, Houston has maintained its trademark defensive intensity, and it often seems as if it has seven defenders on the floor instead of five. The Cougars limited Illinois to 34 percent shooting from the field. Houston used an 11-0 run to go ahead, 65-49, and put the game out of reach.

Offensively, the senior guard Taze Moore was terrific in the open court, finishing with 21 points and 7 rebounds. Jamal Shead scored 18 and Kyler Edwards, a member of Texas Tech’s 2019 Final Four team, had 15 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists.

Kofi Cockburn, Illinois’s 7-foot, 285-pound all-American big man, finished with 19 points and 8 rebounds in what was likely his final college game.

Villanova point guard Collin Gillespie was heartbroken a year ago when he missed the NCAA tournament after a medial collateral ligament tear in his left knee in early March.

A 6-foot-3 Pennsylvania native, he opted to return to Villanova for a fifth season after the NCAA granted a waiver to all players in the wake of the pandemic, and now he is making the most of his final season.

After leading the Wildcats to their sixth Big East tournament championship, Gillespie had 20 points and 4 assists to guide second-seeded Villanova into the round of 16 for a second consecutive season with a 71-61 victory over seventh-seeded Ohio State in Pittsburgh. Gillespie’s assist to Eric Dixon led to a 3-pointer that put Villanova ahead, 67-59, with 1 minute 38 seconds remaining after Ohio State had come within 2 points. He hit two free throws in the final seconds to secure the victory.

“It means everything, it’s part of the reason why I came back,” Gillespie said in a television interview after the Big East tournament. “Not being able to play with those guys last year hurt. But I’m just happy I’m able to play with these guys back on the floor, postseason especially.”

The fifth-year senior Jermaine Samuels had 17 points and 8 rebounds, and Caleb Daniels added 11 points and 8 rebounds for Villanova, which has won seven straight games and 12 of its last 13. The Wildcats (28-7) will next face No. . 11 Michigan (19-14) in a South regional game on Thursday in San Antonio.

Under the Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright, Villanova won NCAA titles in 2016 and 2018, the latter when Gillespie was a freshman. He and the Wildcats remain alive for what could be the program’s third championship since 2016.

Gillespie has been the face of the program for the last several years and now ranks 13th in program history in points and 10th in assists.

Ohio State’s EJ Liddell had 17 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists in what was likely his final college game before he heads to the NBA draft. The Ohio State freshman guard Malaki Branham, a borderline first-round NBA pick, had a stellar performance with a game-best 23 points, including 3 of 8 from beyond the arc.

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