No. 15 Houston opened its season Tuesday with a nod to its recent past, unfurling the 2021 Final Four banner at the Fertitta Center in advance of its non-conference game with Hofstra.
The Cougars followed by slogging their way through the first half before fashioning a second-half rally from a 13-point deficit en route to an 83-75 overtime victory that extended their homecourt winning streak to 26 games. Houston outscored Hofstra 34-13 down th e stretch.
With its glitzy national ranking and celebratory mood, it was easy to take for granted that Houston, which will host Rice Friday at the Fertitta Center, would roll against Hofstra.
But the Cougars lost three starters from last season, and it will take time for the new pieces to mesh.
“I think the thing that frustrated me the most is I’ve got a brand new team,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “Everybody thinks you’re better than you are, so you see what I’ve seen the last month. We’re going to struggle until we find an identity. Now we found an identity in the last six minutes; we didn’t have one the first 34. Was I surprised at that? Of course not.”
One holder from last season, junior guard Marcus Sasser, scored 19 of his game-high 25 points in the second half. Sophomore forward J’Wan Roberts paired eight points with 15 rebounds in an expanded role. Some faces have changed, but the culture at Houston remains the same.
“This team is going to be on an upward trajectory,” Sampson said. “Now had we played a bad team and won by 30, everybody would start thinking that we’re better than we actually are. I’m glad we played a good team. I’m thankful to win, but I’m also glad that we struggled.”
Rice opened the second half of its season opener against Pepperdine with a 30-7 blitz that fueled its 82-63 victory. The Owls shot a robust 49.5% from the field and led by as many as 28 points, but their overall sharpshooting took a back seat to a stingy defensive performance.
The Waves connected on just 23 of 65 attempts and missed 19 of 28 3-pointers. Rice has carved a modest reputation as a perimeter-oriented offense, but defense has always been the focal point, although youth and roster attrition prevented the Owls from establishing that tenet.
“It’s certainly the emphasis,” Owls coach Scott Pera said. “Things become important when they’re on the front of your mind, and it’s on the front of our guys’ minds. It’s been since June.
“We now are a veteran team. Having that maturity, the strength, the experience – yes we’ve emphasized it. We’ve always tried to emphasize it, but it’s just a different group. They take it very seriously and are proud.”
Houston will test the Owls’ defensive moxie, and Rice will be further challenged if guards Chris Mullins and Quincy Olivari are unavailable. Mullins was lost to a finger injury early in the win over Pepperdine while Olivari played through a right wrist injury that hampered his shooting.
“We look forward to the challenge of playing Houston,” Pera said. “They’re obviously a tremendous program, an elite program in the country with what Kelvin has done.
“But we’re going to prepare. We’ve got to work on Chris and Quincy and see if they can play and we’ll go there and give it our best shot, I know that. Our guys will be excited.”
–Field Level Media