The Houston Cougars had no business being on the same court with the Memphis Tigers. The Cougars had no business leading at the half. The Cougars shouldn't have been leading at the midway point of the second half.
But most of all, the Cougars really should not have been the one's protecting a lead at the end of the game. The ones watching the 21st ranked Tigers go into panic mode, making wild shots and stupid shots and watching a coach's meltdown on the sidelines.
Yet at the end it was the Houston Cougars on top of the world when the buzzer sounded, pulling off the 77-68 upset of the Tigers. The Cougars (14-14, 6-9) were the one's who celebrated. The Tigers (21-7, 10-5) the ones in shock, wondering what in the hell just happened.
The Cougars were run out of the house when these two met in Memphis back in January. Memphis getting the 82-59 win in a game not as close as the score indicated. And except for the New Year's Eve win against UConn, the Cougars have been embarrassed by all of the ranked teams of the American Athletic Conference. So UH should not have been competitive in this game. Yet the Cougars made the shots, got the rebounds, played the better defense, got the win.
"It's a good win for our team," head coach James Dickey said after the game.
And a good win it was, the best win the team's had in years (better than the UConn win). It was the best game the team's played in years. One of those wins where the Cougars controlled the pace, the action. A game where the Cougars were the more physical team, pushing back against and controlling a more physical, more talented, more highly-regarded squad.
"It's how we practiced," guard Jherrod Stiggers said. "We had no whistles in practice. No whistles."
But more than the physicality, the Cougars played smarter than Memphis and kept their composure, especially late in the game when clinging to a tight lead with Memphis going into desperation mode -- something the Tigers didn't seem to have dealt much with this season.
"We had a tougher mentality," Stiggers said when discussing the difference between this game and the January loss to Memphis. "It wasn't about shooting the basketball. It wasn't about who could get the most assists, the most rebounds. We were playing defense. Tougher, tougher. And as a team. Coaches have been trying to tell us it's not just one player."
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These two teams could meet again tomorrow and it's doubtful that the UH would win. It's doubtful that UH would even come close to getting a win. It's doubtful that UH would be able to get a win against most of the rest of the top teams in the conference, even if playing like last night. But a win's a win, and the Cougars are hoping this win will propel them forward for the rest of the season, hopefully sending them to season-ending wins over Temple, USF, and UCF, given them a .500 record in conference and a winning record on the season before heading into the conference tournament.
But that's probably what's so maddening about this UH basketball team. This is a talented team. TaShawn Thomas is one of the best bigs in the conference. But too often this season the Cougars have played stupidly, made bad passes, put up poor shots with no chance of going in, let the other teams beat them up. Then come the games like last night, or that New Year's Eve game with UConn where the Cougars put it all together against superior teams and the question becomes one of why can't the Cougars just do this every night, every game? Why is it SMU coming back from the dead and not UH?
The Cougars might very well get those three wins to end the regular season as all three of those teams are beyond awful. But is that enough? Is that good enough for the Cougars, for the UH faithful? Should it be good enough? Should the Cougars be happy to pull off the occasional upset, to be competitive from time to time against the ranked powers in a conference that contains several ranked powers.
It's a question the Cougars must wrestle with, a question with which the fans, the alumni, the boosters, the administration and staff must wrestle. But not for today, at least. Not after watching the Cougars beat down the bully that's been whipping up on them these past several years. For now the Cougars can celebrate. If only for a few moments.