BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Houston coach Kelvin Sampson showed no signs of panic among his players after trailing Auburn by 10 points at halftime in the second round of the NCAA tournament. That’s why he chose not to join his team, which was gathering in the locker room.
“Sometimes it’s not always about being mean, mean and hollerin’ with them,” Sampson said. “I didn’t do it. I just said, ‘If we play our defense, we’re going to get back in this game.'”
And he was right. The Cougars defense turned up the pressure and the Tigers went cold from the field and icy from the free throw line. No. 1 seed Houston needed just seven minutes to take the lead in the second half and ran away with an 81-64 victory over No. 9 seed Auburn.
Sampson explained at halftime that the Cougars had not made any changes to their game plan. He said he encouraged injured guards Marcus Sasser (groin) and Jamal Sheed (foot) to worry less about their health and play more.
“The biggest adjustment has been in our approach,” Sampson said. “Sometimes that’s the most important thing.”
But schematically, the Cougars switched more defensively and faced more shots. They finished with four steals and 12 blocks. Auburn was 4 of 24 on field goal attempts in the second half.
Offensively, Sampson said they spread the floor, made the most of individual opportunities and executed few designed plays.
With Sasser, the American Athletic Conference MVP, on the bench with four fouls, junior guard Tramon Mark used his size against smaller Auburn defenders to score 26 points.
“I realized I could get what I wanted,” Mark said. “The coach believed in me and I just kept going after them.”
Sasser said it was exactly the type of performance he expected from Mark. He also saw a change in the attitude of his teammates coming out of halftime.
“We didn’t want to go home,” Sasser said. “We wanted this season to last as long as possible.”
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl admitted his team “didn’t respond” when Houston made a run in the second half, saying the Tigers weren’t ready for the Cougars’ aggressive play.
Going 36-for-19 from the free throw line was particularly disappointing.
“But what hurts is something you can’t control,” Pearl said.
Pearl said the plan coming into the game was solid.
“I wish it was a 20-minute game instead of 40,” he said.