It’s not so much that the Houston Cougars lost 69-57 to UConn yesterday. It’s in how the Cougars lost. There was starting the game making just one of the first 15 shots for the day. There was shooting just 33.3-percent from the floor for the entire day and making just eight of 25 three point attempts.
What it’s about is that the Cougars, now 13-4 (3-2 in conference) for the season, still found a way to lead large portions of the game and were up by eight points at one point during the second half. It’s about the Cougars not panicking, not getting away from the offense, continuing to apply defensive pressure. It’s the fact that UConn is one of the best teams in the conference and yet the Cougars gave UConn all that it could handle.
It’s disappointing that the Cougars have lost two games straight. It’s disappointing that the Cougars worked hard to get good shots yet couldn’t convert many of those shots. It’s disappointing that the Cougars couldn’t hold the eight point lead. But as head coach Kelvin Sampson says, the Cougar turnaround is not an overnight thing. It’s a slow process.
“We are slowly but surely building this,” Sampson said after the game. “This is not a one game fix or a one year fix; it’s a process. There’s no progress without the process; you just have to go through it. We have to continue to build this. I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of where we are.”
Sampson stresses time and time again that the Cougars aren’t a team that’s going to win many games on the strength of shooting the ball. The Cougars are going to win games by winning the turnover battle, by making free throws, by not having what he refers to as empty possessions — those possessions where the Cougars do everything right but miss the shot and don’t get the rebound, or else go to the free throw line but miss the free throws.
The Cougars only turned the ball over nine times, but six of those came in the second half, especially during that time where UConn started the comeback from the eight point deficit. And it was that point that the Cougars had multiple empty possessions, with UConn scoring while UH missed free throws.
“You have to make your free throws, it keeps them at bay,” Sampson said. “You can’t have empty possessions where you work it and get the ball inside and get fouled. You have to make those free throws. When it was 49-41, we missed four or five free throws. [UConn is] a great free throw shooting team, and we have been a great free throw shooting team until recently. We are up five, we get the ball, come down, get the ball inside, and foul... two free throws. Now you are up seven. [Instead we] missed the two free throws, they go down and make two and now it is a 3-point game. If you do that a couple of times, then you don’t have a lead anymore. That is important; turnovers and free throws... that is what extends leads.”
Here’s the thing, though. This Cougar team is a good basketball team. It’s not a great team. It’s not a team that’s going to win games on the strength of talent, or by outshooting the opposition. What it is, however, is a team that does lots of the little things correctly. Ball movement, good shots, rebounds, defensive pressure, not panicking when falling behind. It’s a team learning to trust the process, learning to trust in each other.
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“Like Coach Sampson said, we haven’t been in enough wars together,” guard Damyean Dotson said. “So when our backs were against the wall after [UConn’s Sterling] Gibbs made a couple of threes, everyone didn’t come together to try and change that. Everyone just started holding their head down. In the locker room after the game, I told my team ‘don’t get comfortable, we really haven’t done anything.’ We just have to stay together because we have another opportunity.”
That next opportunity is Tuesday night when the Cougars go up to Dallas to face 10th-ranked and undefeated SMU. That finishes out the toughest stretch of games for UH this season, taking on the best teams in the conference (losses at Cincinnati and yesterday’s loss to UConn). But the Cougars are back in Hofheinz on Saturday, hosting 3-15 USF.
So yes yesterday’s loss is disappointing, especially when considering the eight point second half lead. But watching this team play it’s evident that it’s the best UH team to go out on a basketball court in several years. It’s young, the guys are still learning to play with each other. The team’s getting better, it’s fun to watch. And the atmosphere inside Hofheinz Pavilion is becoming more and more intense, and more enjoyable.
UH basketball is not yet all of the way back. But it’s getting there. Even if the team is going to have to suffer through a few more losses along the way.