WICHITA. Kan. (AP) — It was the type of validating victory that made Houston coach Kelvin Sampson get a bit reflective.
After the Cougars emphatically took down No. 16 Wichita State 65-54 on Saturday, beating a ranked team in a very difficult environment, Sampson thought back to this season’s origins.
“I could see in November where we were going to be pretty good, but we weren’t very good in November,” he said. “And then I could see in December again where we were going to be pretty good.”
The Cougars can officially be considered pretty good.
Houston (14-4, 4-1 American) built a 49-27 lead early in the second half behind balanced scoring a clinical defense. Fabian White scored 14 points to lead the Cougars, and DeJon Jarreau had 12 points and 10 rebounds. Marcus Sasser and Quentin Grimes scored 10 each for Houston.
But holding Wichita State (15-3, 3-2 American) to 22 points below its season average and to just one double-digit scorer (Tyson Etienne with 10) was the Cougars’ biggest achievement.
“We did a really good job on their shooters,” Jarreau said. “I thought we just played to our culture, rebounding a defense.”
It started right away as the Cougars led 35-25 at halftime, allowing the Shockers to make just four of 18 shots inside the 3-point arc.
A Wichita State team looking to bounce back at home from its second loss of the season managed just 25 first-half points.
“Today, they came in and just manhandled our team,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. “Manhandled us.”
The Cougars really blew things open in the first seven minutes of the second half. Houston led 49-27 after Brison Gresham’s dunk with 12:56 remaining.
“When someone broke down defensively, someone was there to cover for them,” Sampson said. “When we doubled in the post, we were ready behind the double team. It was just great team defense.”
Things were so bad for the flustered Shockers, Marshall took a time-out, something he is notoriously hesitant to do.
“We’re taking bad shots, making bad decisions,” Marshall said. “We’re trying to do it ourselves as opposed to getting someone a good shot. That’s just not going to work.”
Wichita State would finally wake up and rally. After missing 19 of its first 23 two-point shots, the Shockers made six of their final eight. They got as close as nine twice in the final two minutes before the Cougars sealed the game at the free throw line.
“I don’t care how much we were up, I will take an 11-point win here every time,” Sampson said.
Marshall spent extra time talking to his players following the loss. He admitted he is not sure where this season took a turn after a 15-1 start.
“I asked our guys what’s going on,” Marshall said. “I don’t recognize the team I coached the last couple games. It’s like we forgot what we did to get us to 15-1.”
Marshall added, “We’ve got more things going on behind the scenes I’m not familiar with, things that spread.”
“We’ve got to look in the mirror,” Shockers guard Erik Stevenson said. “We’ve got to play like we were before we were ranked.”
Houston had nine blocked shots to none for Wichita State. The Cougars also outscored the Shockers 22-12 in the paint.
“We’re not big enough, smart enough or physical enough to finish those plays, I guess,” Marshall said. “Maybe we’re not explosive enough. I really don’t know. I just know it looked like they were volleyball spiking some of those shots.”
Houston: The Cougars get the American’s best conference victory of the season and confirmed their role as contender
Wichita State: The Shockers’ two straight games with little offense leave them looking more like the extremely young team most expected
Houston: Host UConn on Thursday.
Wichita State: At South Florida on Tuesday.