“Sometimes, You Just Gotta Get Lucky”

“I thought we got lucky tonight,” Kelvin Sampson said at the end of his postgame presser. “We coulda lost that game. South Florida played good enough to win, but so did we.

“And we won.”

Kelvin often demurs after a game, saying he’s pleased with a win, but after watching the film, he usually finds plenty to be upset about. On this night, though, everything seemingly went wrong but the stars aligned just enough to give Marcus Sasser a chance to pull it out.

Consider the deck stacked against UH:

UH was missing their rising star, Jarace Walker, who was out sick with a 103-degree temperature. That affected the lineup and the pace of play. It also introduced a new starter into the lineup, Ja’Vier Francis, who seemed rushed and a little nervous at times.

Their teammate Ramon Walker has just stepped away from the team to handle personal matters. That affects the focus of players, especially someone as well-liked as Ramon.

Darius Bowser had to miss the game due to a death in the family. Bowser does not play but is an integral part of the program.

USF knew that Jarace was out and put together a pretty good USF game plan. They also had some of the best ball movement to open three-point shooters we’ve seen all season. USF assisted on eight of their 10 three-pointers (UH – just 5 of 11).

Brian Gregory schemed to go right after J’Wan Roberts, and the UH big man picked up two quick fouls in the first half and another two early in the second half. He played just 7 minutes before the break and 10 after. J’Wan committed cheap, semi-dumb fouls in the first minute of both halves – exactly what USF hoped for.

Then Roberts caught foul #4 before the under-16 break in the second half, effectively relegating him to the bench.

There’s something about refs that normally work lower-tier games getting a top-tier assignment. In this game, the refs often had their eyes down the floor after a possession instead of watching the ball handler right in front of them (lots of missed travels). There were a lot of fouls and a lot of chippiness. They did nothing to settle that down. Jamal Shead was pulled and grabbed and beat up pretty well in the game.

A defender grabbing Shead’s wrist. No foul was called and Shead made the basket // Photo by Mario Puente

USF used their size, along with Jarace’s absence and J’Wan on the bench, to take over down low. UH had no answer for a much improved 7’0″ Russel Tchewa at center. He got position on the UH bigs and was fouled so often, he scored 14 on three made field goals.

USF’s size caused issues for the UH guards, too. It closed passing and pick-and-roll lanes and limited their options. Assist totals have been low in games when facing a presence in the middle – Oral Roberts, Alabama, USF. Since Alabama, the Cougars had averaged nearly 16 assists a game.

But it wasn’t just size: USF was a 32% shooting team from three coming into the game, making about 6.7 a game. Wednesday, they made 10 while shooting 48%. They were a 63% free throw shooting team before Wednesday, making 10.5 a game but then went 21/27 against UH.

Ten points over your average from three-point shooting and 10.5 over your average from the line. As Kelvin said after the game, “that’s how upsets happen.”

A hangover from the Cincinnati game, as Sampson described in the postgame (three games in 6 days with illness running through the team). With a mini-break on the horizon (six days til Tulane and only two games in 14 days), UH came out sloppy, committing three turnovers before the first media timeout (but only four more in the game).

Despite all that, the Cougar defense stepped up when it counted. UH turned the Bulls over 11 times in the second half, holding them without a field goal for nearly 8.5 minutes. That erased a five-point deficit, turning it into a nine-point lead.

Shead, Sasser, and Mark were warriors who all had to play for over 35 minutes. Shead and Sasser combined to go 15/31 and 9/18 from three and dished seven of UH’s nine assists. In the second half, Sasser took over the game, in a way you might see that happen more often with a lesser team around him.

But without his big men down the stretch, Sasser put his teammates on his back and carried them to a win.

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