The Houston Cougars and Arkansas Razorbacks played a basketball game on Saturday night at TSU’s H&PE Arena. It featured an improving Arkansas basketball team seeking to return to the spotlight of the Nolan Richardson era of the 1990s. The Houston Cougars are also an improving team coming off of two straight NIT bids while seeking a return to the glory of the Guy V. Lewis era. If these two teams would have played in the 1980s, the arena would have been packed. But this is 2017 and only 4,186 fans came out for the game.
The Cougars (6-1) dominated the game from the opening tip as Arkansas (5-2) failed to score a point until over six minutes had elapsed in the first half. The Cougars led 11-0 by the time Arkansas did score. The Razorbacks knocked the UH lead down to eight points multiple times in the first half, but could never get closer, and in the Cougars kicked into another gear in the second half, soaring to a 91-65 win.
This was a big win for the UH basketball team. Arkansas is without a doubt the best team the Cougars have played this season — though unranked, Arkansas had defeated ninth ranked Oklahoma several weeks ago and had demolished UH conference foe UConn by 35 points earlier in the week. So the win helps the Cougars strength of schedule (which is all important come tournament time) while showing the Cougars that come conference time, they should be able to beat anybody.
The Cougars have attempted to play at a fast pace for several years now, and Saturday’s game was the best example yet of what head coach Kelvin Sampson likes to see from his team. The ball was pushed put up the court. There was good spacing. The passing was crisp. The shots taken were open shots.
“We’re getting better,” Sampson said. “This was a good step for us. A lot of basketball left.”
The prime area of improvement was on the defensive end. Arkansas came into the game averaging 90.2 points a game while shooting 49.5 percent from the floor. The Cougars instead held Arkansas to nearly 30 points below that average. And the defensive effort forced Arkansas into numerous turnovers and bad shots which resulted in a 34.5 percent shooting percentage.
“For us, it was about staying focused,” guard Corey Davis said. “We were never content. At no point in the game were we content. We were just very focused on not even scoring with the ball but stopping them from scoring. That was our main focus all week — play hard on defense, play 40 minutes strong, and just play Houston basketball.”
Corey Davis, who finished 17 points, and forward Devin Davis, who finished the night with 28 points, both stressed that defense is the most important part of their respective games, and for the team.
“Offense score points,” Devin Davis said. “Defense wins games.”
The game further demonstrated how the Cougars have grown from last season. Rob Gray, the team’s leading scorer, was scoreless for the first half of the game. If that would have happened last season, the Cougars would have likely lost as the Cougars were lacking in dependable scorers behind Gray. But Sampson points to the group of players he now has on his roster and speaks of just how important recruiting is while further noting that it takes time to build a program.
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“We were shorthanded a lot last year,” Sampson said, “and we had two guys who could make a basket.”
The Cougars do have more depth, and the improved talent from the big guys is especially evident. The team is better, it is deeper, and it is definitely an entertaining team to watch. And with the victory over Arkansas, Sampson is hoping that Houston fans finally discover that UH plays basketball and will come watch them play even when they don’t face Arkansas.
“I’ll be glad when our program gets to the point where people come see us, though,” Sampson said. “I get it. People came to see Arkansas tonight. I get that. When Arkansas goes home, people come to see them, and that’s great for their kids. I feel badly for our kids sometimes that people don’t come them play. I wish people would come watch our kids play.”
UH sports fans are a fickle bunch. But if the Cougars keep playing like they did against Arkansas, especially when American Conference play kicks off and teams like Wichita State and SMU and Cincinnati come to town, then perhaps the fans will finally start coming out to cheer on the team.