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Houston’s elite defense carries Cougars to brink of second straight Final Four

After knocking out top seed Arizona, Houston takes on Villanova in the Elite Eight with a Final Four berth on the line

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament South Regional-Arizona vs Houston
Houston’s defense swarmed Bennedict Mathurin and Arizona all night long in the Sweet 16 showdown. The Wildcats were limited to 60 points, their second-lowest point total this season.
Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS – When the Houston Cougars took the 200-mile trip due west to their regional semifinal matchup against top seed Arizona, they demonstrated the principle defense travels.

It was a showdown between the third-highest scoring offense in Arizona at 84.0 points per game against the third-stingiest defense in Houston at 59.0. That’s a 24-point difference.

The Cougars held the Wildcats to 60 points, their second-lowest output this season, and won 72-60 in a wire-to-wire victory to secure its second trip to the Elite Eight in as many years.

“The key to beating Arizona is controlling the pace,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said, according to ESPN. “We’re going to win a game in the 60s. But we’re not going to win a game in the 80s.”

Every time Arizona tried to overtake Houston, it failed to string together a long enough run to accomplish that. The Cougars jumped out to a 10-point lead less than six minutes into the contest and led by a half dozen at the break. After the Wildcats narrowed the gap to two midway through the second half, the Cougs answered with a 10-2 run. The most consecutive points Arizona scored was six.

“They’re a hard team to get runs on because offensively they control the tempo and they’re great offensive rebounding,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said, according to AZ Desert Swarm. “It’s hard to get multiple stops in a row to make those kind of runs. They get a ton of credit. They do what they do, and they do it at a really high level. That’s why they’re consistently good.”

The Wildcats managed just nine fast break points. They shot 33% from the field. The Cougars forced 14 turnovers and turned them into 24 points.

They held Arizona’s most lethal scorers in check too. Fresh off a 28-point performance in the second round against TCU, Christian Koloko was just 2-for-6 and managed 10 points. Bennedict Mathurin had shot 4-for-14 and tallied 15 points. Azuolas Tubelis missed all eight of his shot attempts and finished with just two points.

Meanwhile, Jamal Shead led the way for Houston offensively. He knocked in 21 points and dished out six assists. Kyler Edwards scored 19 points on 5-of-9 shooting from 3-point land. Josh Carlton rounded out the double-digit scorers with 10 points.

“We’re a tough bunch,” Sampson said. “We’ve gotten a lot better as the season goes on. But all the credit goes to these kids. I’m really proud of this bunch. They bought into the game plan tonight, and they’re not afraid of anybody.”

Standing between Houston and its second straight Final Four is Villanova. The Wildcats have won two of the last five national championships. They enter the matchup on an eight-game winning streak.

Elite Eight Details

Matchup: No. 5 Houston vs. No. 2 Villanova

Date and Time: Saturday, March 26 at 6:09 p.m. ET

Location: AT&T Center, San Antonio

Television: TBS

DraftKings Line: Houston -2.5, O/U 128

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