After outlasting Connecticut on Thursday night, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said he was impressed with the moxie his 25th-ranked team showed.
The Cougars (15-4, 5-1 American Athletic Conference) have won three consecutive games and nine out of the past 10. They trailed by six points to the Huskies with 5:15 to go before rallying.
“Sometimes when you don’t have your best stuff and you’re in a fight like that, you have to find a way to win,” Sampson said. “That’s where your culture comes, where how you practice every day comes in. Your preparation.”
Houston’s DeJon Jarreau had a near triple-double with 18 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, and Caleb Mills scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half. Jarreau and Mills combined for the final 28 points for the Cougars, including 17 free throws, in the last 11:41.
Houston must maintain its focus Sunday against what is perceived to be a lesser opponent, South Florida (8-11, 1-5). The Bulls head to Houston on a four-game losing streak after a 56-43 home loss to Wichita State on Tuesday.
South Florida’s defense will be a challenge for the Cougars. The Bulls have limited five consecutive opponents to 68 points or fewer.
“I felt going in that it was obviously going to be a defensive battle with the way both teams play,” South Florida coach Brian Gregory said after the loss to the Shockers. “For about 30 minutes, that’s exactly what it was, and then give them credit. They were able to make some big offensive plays, kind of take a four-, six-point lead and get it to 11 or 12.”
David Collins had 14 points for the Bulls, and Ezacuras Dawson III added 10.
Collins is trying to keep his team positive despite the losing streak and with a road game next up against a ranked opponent.
The three losses for the Bulls before playing Wichita State were decided by four points or less, including games at East Carolina and at Central Florida.
“We’re holding each other up,” Collins said. “We know what we’re capable of. We’ve lost some really close games and been in some games, so we know we just gotta keep it going. The light always shows.”
Houston is coming off shooting only 36.2 percent from the floor against UConn.
“You’re going to have games like this if you play 30-something games,” Sampson said. “We had a game like this early in the year against BYU and found a way to lose it. This one tonight, we found a way to win it.”
The Cougars had their third-lowest scoring half of the season with 25 first-half points. Houston won the rebounding battle 42-33 but had just one second-chance point.
Houston will be the third ranked team South Florida will play this season. The Bulls lost to then-No. 19 Florida State 66-60 in December and to then-No. 21 Memphis 68-64 earlier this month.
Wichita State was ranked No. 16 last week but fell out of the ratings after losing at home to Houston on Jan. 18.
The Cougars are looking for their sixth consecutive win in the series over South Florida. In its past five victories against the Bulls, Houston has prevailed by an average of 15.4 points. South Florida’s last win in the series came on Jan. 23, 2016, a 71-62 decision at Houston.
–Field Level Media