The Houston Cougars were coming off a two-game losing streak, and they were playing the Marshall Thundering Herd, one of the surprise teams of C-USA (but also coming off a two-game losing streak). With the losing streak, the Cougars were falling out of contention in C-USA, and as such, were falling out of contention for any chance at the NCAA Tournament.
The team's chances didn't look very promising because Marshall presented the type of team the Cougars have had all problems with all season.: an athletic big man who could score points, rebound, and play defense.
So the Cougars came up with a bit of a different game plan than the one they've been using, with the result being a 81-66 win in a game in which the Cougars were never truly challenged.
The Cougars played the type of game for which head coach Tom Penders' Texas teams were known -- a fast-break offense and a swarming defense that put the Marshall big guys into foul trouble and opened up the game for a second-half display by Aubrey Coleman that saw him go off for 30 points and six rebounds.
"We knew we had to go on the run so that they couldn't stay with us," Coleman said. Marshall's "the type of team...we've seen them play against Memphis, and they only lost by two, and Memphis let them stay with them...so that was our key, just run away and make their confidence go down and build on our lead. It worked out for us."
What worked best for the Cougars was an inside game that was powered by the physical presence of Kendrick Washington and the speed and quickness of Maurice McNeil.
Washington, playing his most minutes of the season, finished with a career-high 10 points. But his best work was what he did to hotshot freshman Marshall big man Hassan Whiteside, one of the top rebounders, scorers, and shot blockers in C-USA. Washington's inside power got Whiteside in early foul trouble, and that opened up the floor for the Cougar offense.
"That was the key," Coleman said. "We knew that we were going to have to play [defense] first in order to get out running....the goal tonight [was] to play [defense] so that we could run in the open floor. The big kid [Whiteside], it seemed like he wasn't confident in his game tonight, because we got him in foul trouble real early. So he was kind of like hesitant on what he wanted to do....we had Kendrick step up tonight. That was the big reason. It was the challenge I told him in practice....so Ken, he stepped up and came through for me."
Washington wasn't the only one to come through for the Cougars. Coleman finished with 37 points and 13 rebounds as he had a second half for the ages. He hit shots from long range, from short range. In traffic and wide-open. He made use of screens from Washington and McNeil, and he drew fouls and made use of the foul line to keep the Cougars soaring high over Marshall.
"It's a zone that I get into when I'm working out at night by myself," he said. "I train my mind to do exactly what I'm going to do in the game. I work out like I play."
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The season is quickly coming to an end for the UH -- there are only 10 games left for the 11-9 (4-3) Cougars. And for them to have any chance of further success, they're going to need the continued presence of Washington.
"It helps a lot," guard Kelvin Lewis said. "A lot of teams, they see us as a guard team, so they focus on the guards a lot. There's a lot of space down low for the bigs to work out...once we started establishing down low, like we've been doing these past couple of games, it's tough on teams because it gets their big men in foul trouble. And then once, their big men get in foul trouble, we're penetrating and getting in the paint."
Washington gets to keep proving himself on Wednesday when the Cougars travel to El Paso for a rematch with the UTEP Miners, a team the Cougars defeated 75-65 just weeks ago.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Tom Penders, his assistants, and the UH staff were decked out in suits and sneakers on Saturday as part of the annual Coaches vs. Cancer Suits and Sneakers awareness weekend. Penders likes this look as he was wearing a suit and sneakers when he won his 600th game as a coach....this was Aubrey Coleman's fifth double-double of the season, and his 37 points and 13 rebounds were season highs. This was also the fifth time this season he has scored 30-plus points.