Houston’s steady veterans, talented young players lead Cougars over Virginia a week after loss to Alabama

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —  Houston had a problem… again. The No. 5 Cougars, one week removed from blowing a 15-point lead against Alabama, had seen a double-digit lead vs. No. 2 Virginia dwindle to six points in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd at John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday.

Then came a hard take — and a soft touch — from Marcus Sasser on a layup over Cavaliers’ shot-blocking standout Kadin Shedrick.

Then came a laser pass from Jarace Walker to Tramon Mark for a 3-pointer to answer a Shedrick dunk.

Then came a forced turnover and a fadeaway from Walker, which (talk about high praise) Virginia coach Tony Bennett compared to Dirk Nowitzki’s trademark shot. 

The undefeated Cavaliers never got any closer, and Houston disappointed most of the 14,623 fans with a 69-61 win vs. Virginia, its best victory of the season.

Every time Virginia asked the question “Would Houston collapse again?” the Cougars answered with an authoritative “no.” The Cavaliers never scored more than four consecutive points in the second half. Houston shot 50% from the field — and 50% from 3-point range — over the final 20 minutes.

“I’m not sure we’re able to do that without the Alabama experience,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “You know, guys, they all think they’re Superman. It’s not about being a Superman, it’s about playing on a super team.”

Houston certainly wasn’t a super team all afternoon Saturday, but the Cougars appeared to be playing close to that level for several stretches vs. the Cavaliers. Before Houston had to hold off a UVA rally, it had to stage one of its own. Virginia led 9-0 at the first media timeout. Houston demonstrated poise and patience, weathering the storm and eventually settling in on both ends.

“The most important thing — and I was trying to tell my teammates when we went down 9-0 — was to stay together,” Houston forward J’Wan Roberts said. “It’s part of basketball. They’re gonna go on runs. We’re gonna go on runs. It’s just gonna go back and forth. Whenever stuff doesn’t go our way, don’t separate. Stay together as a team. We’re gonna get through it.”

As they got through it, their star freshman quietly got going. Jarace Walker didn’t score for nearly the first 18 minutes of the game. Then the skillset that has him as a projected first-round NBA Draft pick started to show. A tough push shot off a spin move. Then a long two off the dribble. It could have been nothing. After all, Houston only led 30-26 at the break. Instead, it was a sign of things to come.

Early in the second, Walker finished through a foul for an old-fashioned three-point play. Then came a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. Within six minutes of game time, he had gone from scoreless to double digits. He finished with a team-high 17 points, seven rebounds, a career-high four assists, a block and a steal, exhibiting impressive growth.

“He couldn’t have played today a month ago,” Sampson said. “He’s gonna continue to get better. He has everything that you’d want.”

Walker was one of five Cougars in double figures. In the loss to Alabama, which knocked Houston from the No 1 spot in the AP Top 25 poll, there were only two.

“I thought against Alabama, we got a little too passive,” Sampson said. “We got a little too selfish. So, having that experience, we leaned on those three guys.”

By “those three guys,” Sampson’s talking about his veteran guards, who always knew when to step up. Sasser finished with 13 points, nine of which came in the first half, when Houston was just trying to stick around. Tramon Mark also had 13, but 11 of his came in the second half. The third guard, Jamal Shead, added 11 points of his own, and Roberts had 10.

But perhaps no player showed Houston’s toughness and resilience more than Reggie Chaney. Look at the box score and you’ll see two points, five rebounds and two assists in 16 minutes before fouling out, but you’ll also see a team-high +11 plus-minus — although Sampson won’t be looking. 

“Stats are irrelevant,” Sampson said. “He’s a winner. He makes winning plays. … He has no ego. His toughness and his commitment to winning… All he’s done is help us win games.”

Sampson is working with — for his standards — a relatively young team. He lost four starters from last year’s team. Efforts like Saturday’s, though, show why he’s excited for where his team can go.

“It takes a while to get there,” Sampson said. “You’re not going to play good basketball in November. It’s November basketball, which is different from January basketball or February basketball or March. You just get better as you go. We’re a much better team than we were, say, a month ago. I think if we stay disciplined and stay humble [we’ll continue to get better].”

Sampson’s never had an issue making sure his team stays disciplined or humble. Perhaps this year’s iteration just needed a reminder, which it got against Alabama. It was a different story against Virginia.

“We had 17 assists today,” Sampson said. “I’m not even sure we passed 17 times [against Alabama]. I thought our discipline was good today.”

Of course, someone has to turn those passes into assists. On Saturday, it was Walker.

“Walker wasn’t afraid at Oregon,” Sampson said. “He wasn’t afraid against Alabama. Now, he didn’t play very [well], but all of those experiences helped him tonight, and I think tonight will help him going forward.”

Roberts was more direct.

“He’s built for it,” he said with a smile. “Even though he’s a freshman.”

Houston’s heralded freshman showed he is indeed built for it. We already know the experienced guards are built for it — they have the deep NCAA Tournament runs to prove it. Combine the two, and you get a team with experience, toughness, depth and star power. That’s a combination that’s built to win big games like this one — and big games to come.



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