Without Marcus Sasser, #1 falls in the AAC championship game

All-American Marcus Sasser did not play on Sunday, and the top-ranked Houston Cougars lost the AAC Championship game to Memphis. The Cougars trailed early and could never recover, losing 75-65.

Despite the loss, Houston was awarded the top seed in the Midwest Region and will play Thursday in Birmingham against Northern Kentucky. It is UH’s first #1 seed since 1983.

With a quick turnaround of just three days between games, head coach Kelvin Sampson expressed his wish that they would have gotten one more day off.

“I think anybody that plays on a Sunday in the championship would prefer a Friday-Sunday bracket,” Sampson said after the Memphis game. “Just from a wear-and-tear (standpoint).”

Houston’s second-round matchup could be against nine-seed Auburn, playing 110 miles from their campus. It is highly unusual for a lower seed to get that advantage.

“Auburn gets to play in Birmingham? Maybe we should’ve been a nine seed,” Sampson deadpanned.

Auburn in Birmingham? // Photo by Mario Puente

UH desperately missed Sasser, sidelined with a groin injury sustained against Cincinnati. There was plenty of speculation that Sasser would play, but doing so would have been a significant risk for Houston’s NCAA plans. Sasser was suited up on the bench and went through warmups and a light shoot-around earlier in the day, but Kelvin Sampson said he knew he would not let the All-American play.

“Playing today, I didn’t put a high priority on that,” Sampson said. “I don’t think I could’ve lived with myself had he played today and gotten hurt.”

Memphis went on a 23-6 run in the first half, ultimately dooming UH. Kendric Davis scored the final eight of the run and finished with 31 points. He popped back-to-back threes in eight seconds, the second off of a lazy inbound pass from the Cougars.

“We kind of lost our composure,” Sampson said.

Davis had 20 points in the half, and Memphis shot 62%, putting UH in a 46-31 halftime hole. Houston came out of the locker room energized and chipped away at the deficit, shrinking it to five with eleven minutes to play. But the Tigers weathered the storm while the Cougars completely stagnated. An 8-0 run down the stretch iced the game in the final five minutes.

“I thought we fought,” Sampson said, “and I’m proud of them for that.”

J’Wan Roberts set a new career-high with 20 rebounds, including ten offensive boards. Terrance Arceneaux got his first career start in relief of Sasser, scoring nine points in 35 minutes.

The Cougars stand at 31-3 and will leave for Birmingham on Tuesday.

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