FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Marcus Sasser was playing again in March for top-ranked Houston, and the Cougars could have been in big trouble without him in the American Athletic Conference tournament quarterfinals.
Two days after being named the league’s top player, Sasser scored 24 of his 30 points in the second half Friday as the Cougars overcame their worst-shooting game all season to beat East Carolina 60-46 for their 30th win of the season.
“It just shows his character and the type of person he is,” guard Jamal Shead said. “He never lets a lot of things get to him, and just showing out good he is that second half.”
Sasser was a starter on the Cougars’ 2021 Final Four team but missed their run to the NCAA Elite Eight last year because of a broken bone in his left foot before Christmas.
“Just being back out there with my teammates during March is always a good experience, a fun experience,” said Sasser, who was 9-of-15 shooting.
The Cougars (30-2), a sure-bet No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, have back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time since their Phi Slama Jama era. Houston made three consecutive Final Four appearances from 1982-84, and were national runner-ups in back-to-back seasons — winning 31 games in 1982-83 and 32 the next season.
Houston plays fourth-seeded Cincinnati in the AAC semifinals Saturday.
East Carolina freshman forward Ezra Ausar had 18 points and a season-high 19 rebounds to set an AAC tourney record in his third double-double this season. The Pirates (16-17) had a season-low scoring total and shot 31.4% (16 of 51).
Take out Sasser, and the rest of Cougars were 7-of-42 shooting to finish at 28.1% overall (16 of 57). Shead’s 12 points on 3-of-10 shooting made him the only other Houston player with multiple made field goals. J’Wan Roberts had 12 rebounds, but was scoreless missing his five shots.
“The shooting percentage isn’t what bothered me. We missed 41 shots, and got six offensive rebounds. … somebody on our team got six misses,” Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson said. “That’s what disappointed me.”
The Pirates jumped out to an early 9-5 lead by making four of their first five shots before they started to struggle against Houston’s tenacious defense. ECU made only four of its remaining 18 shots before halftime, and still only trailed by two because the Cougars were even worse from the field at 25.8% (8 of 31).
After three Pirates turnovers in the first 2 1/2 minutes of the second half, Houston extended its lead to 29-21 when Sasser swished a 3 from the left wing. Another 3 by Sasser pushed it 42-28 with just over 12 minutes left.
“We knew speaking at halftime how aggressive they would come out both offensively and defensively,” first-year Pirates coach Michael Schwartz said. “It’s one thing to be prepared for it, but with a team that hasn’t experienced a whole lot of it, to feel it. … That was clearly the difference in the game, the first 4-6 minutes of that second half because of their intensity.”
East Carolina: Its 16 wins were the most since going 17-17 in 2013-14 — the final season in Conference USA for the Pirates before moving to the AAC. Their 73-58 win over South Florida in the opening round Thursday was their first win in the AAC tournament since 2017.
Schwartz said he was proud of his players for “putting two feet into what we want to accomplish and what we’re going to build here.”
Houston: The Cougars, who are moving to the Big 12 next season, are the only team in the nation that hasn’t lost away from home this season. They were 11-0 in true road games and are now 3-0 in neutral games. Houston has never lost at Dickies Arena on the edge of downtown Fort Worth where the AAC Tournament is played. The Cougars are 10-0 in the building, including the past two AAC Tournaments and regular-season games in each of the past three seasons.
This is the fifth consecutive AAC meeting in which Houston and Cincinnati meet — the first three were in the championship game. The Bearcats won titles in 2018 and 2019, then Houston won in 2021 after no tournament in 2020 because of COVID-19. Cincinnati lost to the Cougars in a quarterfinals game last year.