It was 50 years ago Saturday that the Houston Cougars hosted the UCLA Bruins in the so-called Game of the Century. The first major college basketball game played in a domed stadium before a packed crowd and televised on national television, the game saw the second-ranked Cougars bring down the No. 1-ranked Bruins in a thrilling game that delivered college basketball to the national consciousness while announcing that the Cougars were a now national presence.
Fifty years makes quite a difference. Nationally televised college basketball games are an everyday occurrence. National title games are routinely held in sold-out domed stadiums before millions of television viewers. And while UCLA is no longer the dominating powerhouse it once was, the Bruins are still a nationally relevant college basketball program that routinely makes the NCAA tournament.
The Houston Cougars hosted the seventh-ranked Wichita State Shockers Saturday afternoon before 5,708 fans crowded inside TSU’s H&PE Arena in a game played on ESPNU, one of the lesser ESPN stations. It’s somewhat of the comedown from hosting the game’s dominant program, in a packed domed stadium before a huge national TV audience, but such is the state of the Houston Cougars and college basketball in the city of Houston.
The Cougars pulled off the huge upset, defeating Wichita State 73-59 and improving Houston’s record to 15-4 (5-2 in conference play). Houston now has the same record as the Shockers, the new addition to the AAC, and the win puts the Cougars in a tie with Wichita State for second place in the conference. It was UH’s first win over a top-10 ranked team in nearly 22 years (UH defeated a third-ranked Memphis team in 1996).
Wichita State dominated the Cougars the last time the two teams met, getting a 81-63 win in a game that was nowhere as close as the final score indicated. The Shockers hit 10 three pointers alone in the first half of that game, but this time out, the Cougars strengthened up on defense, forced turnovers, took an early lead, and never looked back.
The Cougars only shot 43.3-percent from the field on Saturday (hitting just 5-of-20 from three point range), but Houston’s defense held Wichita State down, allowing the Shockers to hit just 32.8-percent of its shots and just 4-of-20 from behind the three point line. The Cougars also forced 18 turnovers.
“There’s a big difference in playing hard versus competing. We always play hard, but tonight we really competed. We believed we were going to win this game. Our guys kept hearing that Wichita State lost [its last game], and they’re going to come here in mad. But what about us, we lost [our last game] and we’re mad, too.”
This win is undoubtedly the best UH regular season since perhaps Tom Penders’ squad upset 25th-ranked LSU and 15th-ranked Arizona in back to back games in 2005. And it is definitely the biggest win since Kelvin Sampson took over the squad. Part of this speaks to the fact that Sampson took over a demoralized and diminished team with just five scholarship players, and he has spent his time rebuilding and restocking for this season with the most talented overall squad that Houston has seen since the Pat Foster years.
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“I saw one of my former [student] managers that was here in my first year, and he said, ‘Coach, we’ve come a long way.’ That’s the first time I’ve really thought about it. That first year, we only had five guys on scholarship. That might have been the most over-achieving team I’ve ever coached. That team won 13 games. I’m still trying to figure out how that team won 13 games — it should have won five, not 13. We’re building the program. We have good players. This is a signature win. But I just think there are bigger, better wins down the road for us.”
Saturday’s game was to originally be played at Toyota Center, but Sampson says that he lobbied for the game to stay at TSU because he likes the arena and the setting, and he knew that a packed H&PE Arena crowd would be loud and full of energy. And that lobbying paid off as the arena was loud and cheered on the UH team.
The win might push UH close to making the top 25 (though last Wednesday’s loss to Tulane may prevent that). But ranking or not, the win establishes the Cougars as a force to be reckoned with in the American Conference, and according to Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, if UH keeps playing as it did against his squad, the Cougars are without doubt a NCAA tournament team.
And maybe the win serves another purpose. Perhaps now, 50 years after the Game of the Century, the Cougars are once again announcing a return to the national basketball stage. And maybe from now on UH schedules will be filled with more teams of the caliber of Wichita State and less with teams like Incarnate Word, New Orleans, Fairfield, and Prairie View.