Houston stumbles as defense, rebounding falter in Final Four

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Kelvin Sampson watched as his Houston team seemed on the verge of a stop when a Baylor 3-point try took a long bounce out beyond the 3-point arc.

Instead, the Bears ran the ball down and got it to MaCio Teague for a dunk as Sampson stared helplessly from the sideline with his hands on his hips.

Tough defense and relentless rebounding had been the Cougars’ identity as they reached their first Final Four in nearly four decades. It had been enough to cover for their shaky shooting, too. But the Cougars struggled for stops and rebounds — a failure of the most essential elements in Sampson’s successful rebuild — in Saturday’s 78-59 blowout loss to the Bears in the national semifinals.

“The locker room is really emotional,” Sampson said. “Those guys invested a lot in this. But we ran into a really good team tonight. Didn’t play well and that team we played had a lot to do with it.”

Houston (28-4) had been holding teams to 55.8 points and 39% shooting through four NCAA Tournament games while also out-rebounding opponents by more than nine per game. That had included shutting down Syracuse’s hot-shooting Buddy Boeheim and Ethan Thompson’s push that got 12th-seeded Oregon State all the way to a South Region final, while no opponent had scored more than 61 points.

The Cougars found themselves up against a completely different challenge with Baylor and its elite guards and its wealth of 3-point shooters. And they struggled to keep up.

Baylor finished shooting 53% and made 11 of 24 3-pointers, with Jared Butler leading an attack that moved the ball and got plenty of clean looks while keeping the Cougars’ physical defense on their heels.

They were also outrebounded and managed nearly all of their second-chance points — which had been a key piece of their regional-final win against the Beavers — long after Baylor had built a 25-point halftime lead.

The only highlight was sophomore Marcus Sasser’s team-carrying offensive performance in that opening half, with him scoring 17 of his 20 points while the rest of the team went a combined 1 of 15 from the field.

“That was a good team so we were going shot for shot,” Sasser said of the early minutes. “And that wasn’t going to win it. We had to get stops. It was just unfortunate we couldn’t do that.”

It was a brutal finish to the journey for a team that had reached the program’s first Final Four since 1984.

DeJon Jarreau — who had flirted with triple-doubles while leading the defensive efforts in each of the past two games — checked out with 1:46 left and gave Sampson a long hug. Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes followed a short time later, and both ended up huddled with teammates in tears at the end of the bench as the final seconds of the season ticked away.

“The perception of our program has changed and our program has changed,” Sampson said. “I can’t wait to play in front of sellouts next year. It’s going to be exciting.

“But this team will never be forgotten. The broke the ground. they showed it can be done. Now it’s up to these ensuing teams to stake their ground, too. Looking forward to it.”

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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