Against Auburn, Marcus Sasser picked up his fourth foul with 10:53 to go in the game. A free throw made it a 49-46 lead for the Tigers, and Sasser exited before the second attempt. Tramon Mark subbed in for him, and at that exact moment, the game’s tenor changed. On his second FT attempt, Johni Broome didn’t even get it to the rim.
Houston went down the floor and fed it to Mark, who rattled in a jumper in the lane from 11′ out. After a Tiger free throw, Jamal Shead drove, it wasn’t there, and he pushed it back out to Mark near the midcourt line. Mark hesitated in order to let his offense set up, then cut underneath the pick set by J’Wan Roberts, weaved in and then outside the lane as he crossed over Broome, and popped another from the elbow.
Two possessions, two jumpers, and the game was tied. It was clear from those two shots where Mark wanted to go when he got the green light.
“I just realized I could get whatever I wanted with those ISOs,” Mark said after the game. “I continued to go at them, and I got what I wanted; got to the free throw line, got to my mid-range.”
After Jamal Shead picked up his fourth foul, Mark continued to savage the smaller Auburn guards near the left elbow. He got there, his sweet spot, with relative ease, making four buckets from that area. And if he didn’t make it, he got it at the free-throw line, where he went eight for eight.
“He’s a really good one-on-one player,” Kelvin Sampson said about Mark. “And he’s an excellent free throw shooter.”
Just as important, the Dickinson Gator stayed clean amid a foul fest, keeping himself on the court for the stretch run and committing zero fouls. Mark was the only Cougar that saw action not to commit at least one of its 17 second-half fouls.
Sampson knows Mark is good in one-on-one situations, so he set the offense up to get him there. Sampson abandoned the normal set plays and had the team spread out to give Mark room to work. In later plays, he even told his players not to set a pick and potentially disrupt the guard’s matchup. As mentioned in the CBS broadcast, Sampson seemed to be implementing what he learned in the NBA: exploiting mismatches and spacing the floor.
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“I think it was Jarace or J’Wan (who) ran to set a ball screen for Tramon, and I instructed them to stay flat,” Sampson said. “We just went 1-4 flat. That’s right in Tramon’s wheelhouse.”
While Mark carried the offense in the second half, Houston also needed to hold off Auburn on the other end. The Tigers got into the lane at will in the first half, scoring 22 of its 41 points. The only team that scored more paint points in a half against the Cougars was Memphis, who scored 26 points in a half twice, both in the first and third games between the two teams.
Sampson implored his team to make an attitude adjustment in the locker room at the half, and they responded. Auburn only made four buckets for the entire second half, with just two of those field goals coming in the first 16:30. Jarace Walker and J’Wan Roberts turned the paint into a no-go zone, combining for 11 blocks in the game, placing themselves #1 and #2 UH history for blocks in an NCAA Tournament game. Plays that got easy layups in the first half were disrupted or slapped against the backboard.
In the three-and-a-half-minute stretch when both teams went scoreless, the frontcourt roommates Walker and Roberts helped break the deadlock with their defense. Auburn’s Tre Donaldson, who had yet to miss a shot in the tournament, was blocked by Roberts in the lane. Chris Moore recovered it for the Tigers and tried to put up a shot over Walker.
Not a chance.
The freshman swatted the attempt and got the board to go with it. Twenty seconds later, Marcus Sasser stepped back and nailed a three to give UH the lead and cap off a 15-4 half-opening run that set the tone for the rest of the game.
“You know, we held that team to 4/24,” Sampson said. “We are a good defensive team. You didn’t see it the first half, but you did the second half.”
With two starting guards hobbled and in foul trouble, the other three Houston starters carried the baton to the Sweet 16. With six days to recover, UH could potentially have all five starters healthy and humming for the stretch run back to Houston for the Final Four.