De­fense be­comes call­ing card for elite recog­ni­tion

Houston Chronicle - - SPORTS - JEROME SOLOMON Com­men­tary

Kelvin Samp­son ran into one of his re­cruits Sun­day af­ter­noon in the hall­way at the Fer­titta Cen­ter af­ter a vic­tory un­like any the Uni­ver­sity of Hous­ton has posted in 35 years.

“Did you see that de­fense?” Samp­son said.

Oh, he saw it, Coach. We all did.

Then Samp­son, whose teams have been as tough as any in the coun­try from the mo­ment he took over at Mon­tana Tech in the early 1980s, went on and on with the kid about all the de­fense he is go­ing to learn as a Cougar.

It is a good bet there will be a story in this news­pa­per about the young man fi­nally com­ing into his own as a de­fender un­der

Samp­son’s tute­lage.

De­fen­sive ef­forts like Sun­day’s in which the Cougars lim­ited Cincin­nati to 33 per­cent shoot­ing, blocked nine shots and held the Bearcats score­less over the fi­nal six min­utes are what Samp­son-coached teams are usu­ally built to do.

While it is roar­ing and rhyth­mic, the “De-fense! … De-fense! … De-fense!” chant from the ul­tra-loud crowd at the new­est and hippest arena in town isn’t re­quired.

Samp­son’s Cougars play as nasty a brand of de­fense when no one is watch­ing as they do when they have the full at­ten­tion of a sold-out arena and the spot­light of a na­tional tele­vi­sion au­di­ence.

Un­like the Rock­ets, who on most nights treat de­fense like an evil that is hardly nec­es­sary, Samp­son’s squad will growl and scowl, scratch and claw, hus­tle and tus­sle to please its coach.

The un­der­paid play­ers at Fer­titta Cen­ter aren’t as tal­ented as the pros a few miles away at Toy­ota Cen­ter, but they are far more ag­gres­sive on the de­fen­sive end of the floor.

Per­haps the cou­ple of Rock­ets who were on hand picked up a few point­ers.

What a grand af­ter­noon of UH bas­ket­ball it was.

The Cougars pulled away down the stretch to claim a 65-58 win over the 25th-ranked Bearcats and im­prove to 23-1.

Surg­ing up the rank­ings

UH, which is ranked 12th and has a good chance to move into the top 10 when the new polls come out Mon­day, has won 32 con­sec­u­tive games at home.

The Cougars haven’t lost a game in the sparkling new Fer­titta Cen­ter and haven’t lost a game in Hous­ton in two years.

They are alone atop the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence stand­ings at 10-1 and re­main in po­si­tion for a No. 3 or maybe even a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tour­na­ment.

Samp­son said de­fense is a big part of this team’s DNA.

It is why the Cougars can make a deep NCAA Tour­na­ment run.

Sun­day’s con­test marked the first time a ranked UH squad hosted a ranked vis­i­tor in 35 years. That was in Fe­bru­ary 1984, when Phi Slama Jama was slam­min’ and jam­min’ and Ha­keem was Akeem.

UH home games hadn’t rocked like that since then. Un­til this sea­son, that is.

Sun­day’s crowd was so into it that it didn’t take a half­time break. Red Panda, the iconic NBA half­time ac­ro­bat who han­dles dishes with her feet while on a uni­cy­cle bet­ter than most of us can use our hands stand­ing flat­footed in the kitchen, re­ceived thun­der­ous ap­plause dur­ing in­ter­mis­sion.

“The crowd is like an­other player,” said UH se­nior guard Corey Davis Jr, who fin­ished with 16 points.

Op­po­nents are hav­ing enough prob­lem with the five play­ers UH puts on the court at a time.

Cincin­nati’s shoot­ing got even worse in the se­cond half (26.5 per­cent), and the Bearcats missed their last 10 shots, all of which came af­ter they took a 58-57 lead with 6:11 left.

Jar­ron Cum­ber­land had a game-high 27 points for Cincin­nati but was shut down af­ter Samp­son put fresh­man Nate Hin­ton on him.

Praise from Bearcats

Bri­son Gre­sham had four blocked shots, Chris Har­ris Jr. added two, and 6-1 Galen Robin­son Jr. joined the com­pe­ti­tion for the most spec­tac­u­lar re­jec­tion with a chase-down and block of what should have been an easy break­away dunk.

De­fense was the story on this day, but the Cougars are ca­pa­ble of light­ing it up.

Their adapt­abil­ity could make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence come Tour­na­ment time.

Cincin­nati coach Mick Cronin said UH can get the best of an op­po­nent with of­fense, de­fense and re­bound­ing.

“They’re the best team we’ve played,” Cronin said of the Cougars. “They put pres­sure on you for 40 min­utes.”

Cronin also saluted UH’s depth, which was on dis­play Sun­day as well, with DeJon Jar­reau com­ing off the bench to jack­knife his way into ty­ing Davis for the team lead with 16 points. Jar­reau poured in 14 points in the se­cond half, in­clud­ing 10 of the Cougars’ fi­nal 11.

Samp­son talked about build­ing a con­sis­tently win­ning pro­gram that can be great ev­ery now and then.

He has turned Hous­ton into good, with three con­sec­u­tive 20-win sea­sons and its first NCAA Tour­na­ment vic­tory in 34 years.

This team has a chance to be bet­ter than good.

These Cougars go hard.

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