On Friday, I laid out a series of necessary keys that the Houston Cougars had to meet were they to have any chance of defeating the Maryland Terrapins in Friday night's opening-round NCAA Tournament match. You've seen the final score by now: Maryland 89, Houston 77. But at the half, just as Houston's Adam Brown sunk an incredible three-pointer from 42 feet as he was stumbling over his feet just as the buzzer sounded to make it 39-37 Maryland, there was this feeling that the Cougars could win the game.
"I was watching [Brown] when he caught the ball and I didn't think it had any chance of going in," Zamal Nixon said afterwards. "Because he tripped. I mean if you look at the replay you would probably say how in the world did he make this shot. He tripped over his feet and just threw it up. It was like a trick shot in the game of horse, I don't think he could have [done] that again."
But the Cougars could not sustain the momentum they generated from their first-half play, and from that Brown shot to end the half. Their game was sloppy in the second half, and the better team took control early and kept control throughout, leaving the Cougars to rush possessions, take poor shots, and generally not execute the way they were executing in the first half.
The Cougars did do some of the things they needed to do if they were going to win. They had big contributions off of the bench from Brown, who finished with 11 points, and Nixon, who finished with 10 points and provided a big lift in the second half. Kelvin Lewis was able to keep Maryland's Greivis Vasquez from being a huge factor in the first half, and Lewis provided offensive help for Aubrey Coleman, finishing the night with 24 points.
Coleman was spectacular in the first half, hitting unbelievable WTF shot after unbelievable WTF shot while setting up his teammates. And the team seemed to have the right attitude: they weren't just happy to be playing the game. They wanted to win the game.
But then there was everything else that didn't happen.
The play of the Houston big men was nearly non-existent. Maurice McNeil finished with two points and six rebounds while Kendrick Washington contributed only four points and four rebounds. Coleman was the team's leading rebounder with eight boards.
But while Lewis was shutting down Vasquez in the first half, the Maryland big guys were roaming the paint and inflicting damage as McNeil and Washington were seemingly powerless to stop them. Jordan Williams got loose for 21 points and 17 rebounds, and Landon Milbourne with 19 points and seven rebounds.
One could see Coleman's first-half three-pointer that banked off of the backboard, or Brown's shot at the end of the half, as an omen for what would happen in the game. But not (former?) coach Tom Penders; he looked at free throws.
"I remember just last week Southern Mississippi throwing one in from half-court and another one going off a guy's head and into the basket" Penders said. "To me omens are free-throw shooting and all that stuff."
And the free-throw shooting was not a good omen, and it's probably the one biggest thing, out of everything the team did wrong, that kept them from the win and advancing to the next round. For the Cougar free-throw shooting was free-throw shooting of Cougar fans nightmares, featuring the return of the Houston NCAA Curse, a complete and utter inability to hit a free throw (see 1982 versus North Carolina in the Final Four, or 1983 versus NC State in the final game).
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The Cougars lost by 12 points. Then look at the stats and notice that the Cougars missed 12 free throws, including seven misses by Coleman who kept driving the lane and getting fouled in the process.
Hair Balls' special correspondent Tom Franklin was on sight in Spokane for the game. And I'll leave it to him to sum up the loss and the reasons for the loss:
Quite simply, the better team this night won the game. Maryland was co-champion in the ACC. Houston finished seventh in C-USA, so it would have taken a huge effort to pull off the upset. The Cougars didn't play poorly, but they didn't play as sharply as they did last week in Tulsa.
Jordan Williams ate up Kendrick Washington and Maurice McNeil inside for 21 points and 17 rebounds. His previous high this season was 19. Landon Milbourne added 19 points and 7 rebounds, so their 4-5 guys teamed up for 40 points and 24 rebounds, while Kendrick Washington and Mo McNeil combined for 6 points and 10 boards.
Maryland carved up the Houston defense early in the second half, converting on their first six possessions. The Terps executed their offense with high precision in the second half, getting 10 assists on their first 13 baskets.
Free throw shooting also hurt UH. Unlike in the C-USA tournament, the Coogs made just 62.5-percent on 20 of 32. Maryland, a 72-percent free throw shooting team on the season, made 21 of 25 for 84-percent. Flip those percentages, and we might have quite a finish instead of a comfortable Maryland win.
The Coogs did not disgrace themselves, but it was disappointing to see they could not sustain the cohesiveness they displayed last week in Tulsa. They were only hitting on six or seven cylinders tonight as opposed to all eight.
This has been an NCAA Tournament of huge, monumental upsets, but for the Cougars, it was not meant to be. Perhaps, for the Cougars, the monumental upset was actually just making the Big Dance.