James Harden demonstrated once again why he is the MVP, sinking the game clinching shot against the Clippers.Photo by Eric Sauseda
It's been a really long time since Houston has had a winning college and pro team in the same sport at the same time. On Thursday night it was basketball as the Rockets dispatched the remarkably tenacious LA Clippers 101-96 at Toyota Center. And in round one of the Men's NCAA Tournament, University of Houston won its first tournament game in 34 years, besting San Diego State 67-65.
Both games were closer than anticipated and both teams relied on their stars down the stretch to secure wins. The Rockets, who have struggled against the Clippers this season, were down as much as 12 in the second half, but rallied on the strength of seven three pointers from Eric Gordon and the 34th double-double of the season from Clint Capela.
Still, with under a minute left, it was a two-point game when MVP favorite James Harden drilled a 20-foot jumper over Austin Rivers to seal the win. The Rockets had a rough shooting night from distance with one notable exception in Gordon. They were just 12-41 from distance, but if you take away Gordon's shooting, the rest of the team was a miserable 5-32.
With the win, the Rockets clinch the Southwest division and climb to 54-14, while staying two games ahead of the Golden State Warriors, who will be without the services of their All-Star backcourt, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Curry will be out at least four more games with a bad ankle and Thompson is said to be out at least a week with a broken finger on his shooting hand.
For the Cougars, this represents a huge step in the development of a team that has struggled to return to prominence since the days of Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Phi Slama Jama. On Thursday they turned to their star Rob Gray over and over again. Gray scored 39 including the acrobatic final shot to seal the deal.
It was a scintillating win for the Coogs, who will advance to round two to face No. 3 seeded Michigan on Saturday. The Wolverines finished the season ranked seventh in the country and overcame a sluggish start to roll Montana in their first round game of the tournament.
The win over San Diego State marks yet another important hurdle for a once stellar program that has floundered for three decades. Whatever happens Saturday, the Coogs appear to be finally headed in the right direction.
As for the Rockets, they are now 10-1 since the All-Star break and have only lost once since January. They have four games remaining in a very tough 15-game stretch that began after the break. It begins with back-to-back games in New Orleans and Minnesota followed by a date at red hot Portland before returning home to face Detroit.
This is only the sixth time in franchise history the Rockets have won their division, but with just 14 games remaining they will need more wins to guarantee home court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Both teams play next on St. Patrick's Day, so Houstonians will get a pass if they happen to wear red instead of green this weekend.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.