There was only one ticket window open at Hofheinz Pavilion Saturday afternoon. That meant that many fans hoping to attend the University of Houston basketball game weren’t actually inside the building until the first half was nearly over. Seeing the score, many probably just turned around and went home.
Saturday wasn’t a good day for the team. Having lost three straight games to the best teams in the conference, the Cougars were looking to get the easy win against a USF squad that had won just three games all season, had yet to win a conference game, was missing two of its best players, lost another player to illness not long before the game started and had just six scholarship players available to play. So of course UH lost the game 71-62.
It’s easy to say, based on this game, that the Cougars are who we thought they were. A team that amassed a good record playing non-entities during an incredibly soft non-conference schedule, then continued to run up the victory total playing the worst teams in the conference before finally hitting the wall. But the Cougars played their best basketball of the season in losing to Cincinnati, UConn and SMU. Those games showed that despite the losses, UH was a good team with good, young talent.
So how to explain Saturday, losing to USF, a team that played just seven players the entire game? There’s the part about how the Cougars couldn’t make shots, hitting just 21 of 56 shots for the entire game (making only 4 of 23 shots from behind the three point line). Then there’s the team’s continued frustrations at the free throw line, hitting only 64 percent of their shots from the charity stripe — the Cougars missed nine free throws, which is really troubling seeing as how the team lost by just nine points.
“I’m 60 years old,” Sampson said Saturday. “Let me tell you something about free throw shooting. I’ve coached 26 teams, and this is the first bad free throw shooting team that I have ever had; I’m not sure that I have had a team practice and shoot more than this team. There is not a lot you can do to improve free throw shooting other than practice. If you can find something else, then Google it. ‘How to improve free throw shooting other than practice,’ I’d like to know what it is.”
Sampson tried numerous player combinations on the floor, emptying his bench and playing every available healthy player, 12 in all. The only true catalyst on the day was little-used guard Wes Van Beck, who ended up scoring 15 points and dishing out four assists in 23 minutes of play. Van Beck was the only guard who seemed to realize the key to defeating USF was to drive the lane and force USF players to foul him.
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“We told [Wes] to drive it,” Sampson said. “I told our guys to quit shooting threes and drive the ball; try to get to the free-throw line and see if we can get them in foul trouble. The problem is, when we get to the free-throw line, we struggle there, too.”
Sampson’s frustration at losing a game the Cougars should have easily won was plainly evident after the game. He spoke of a lack of effort on the floor, of a lack of energy and purpose to start the game. It’s possible the game could have been a letdown for the team, coming off tough losses to the best teams in the conference where, in the losses, UH played really good ball. And coming off those games, playing a team like USF, a team that UH had already easily defeated earlier this season, that maybe the team just thought this game would be an easy win and took it for granted. But Sampson disagreed.
“That just sounds like you are giving us an excuse, and I am not big on excuses,” he said. “You only get to play 30 of these games, and individually they are all important. I am not into excuses. We had a scouting report. We talked about our game plan and how we wanted to play. But everything starts with effort, your energy and enthusiasm. We’ve had some great games this year, but every game by itself is no different than the previous one or the next one. We didn’t come out and play this one the right way. I apologize to our fan base for that, but that is on the head coach.”
The Cougars are a talented team, especially at the guard position, but they're also a young team. This is a team that is better than last season, better than many of the past several seasons, and it has shown that it’s a team that can play very good basketball against the best teams in the conference. But it’s not a team that can depend entirely on talent. It’s a team that is still a year, maybe two, away from being on the same level every game as the best teams in the conference. And who knows, maybe by that point, UH will start opening up more than one ticket window for fans hoping to attend games.