Houston contested every 3-pointer, took away clean looks and forced “Buddy Buckets” to work for any sliver of space he could find.
Defense has been the Cougars’ strength all season. Now it’s taken coach Kelvin Sampson’s team somewhere new: the program’s deepest NCAA Tournament run since the days of Olajuwon, Drexler and the famed “Phi Slama Jama.”
Quentin Grimes scored 14 points and Houston’s defense locked down on surging Buddy Boeheim, helping the Cougars beat Syracuse 62-46 on Saturday night in the Sweet 16 while holding the Orange to their lowest point total in an NCAA Tournament game.
That sent the second-seeded Cougars through to their first regional final in 37 years, earning a matchup with No. 12 seed Oregon State for the Midwest Region title and a spot in the Final Four.
“Obviously, we know the excitement we’re bringing to the city of Houston and to the university,” said DeJon Jarreau, who flirted with a triple-double while leading the defensive effort on Boeheim. “We’re very happy for that, but we have a mission to accomplish.”
Houston hadn’t reached a regional final since a run of three straight Final Fours with its high-flying style under coach Guy Lewis in the 1980s. Future NBA greats Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were teammates on the 1983 team that reached the title game before losing on a shocking last-play dunk to North Carolina State’s “Cardiac Pack” coached by Jim Valvano.
The next year, Olajuwon led the Cougars back to the 1984 final before losing to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown.
And now Sampson’s bunch has the once-proud program back within a win of the Final Four.
Houston (27-3) came in holding opponents to a national-low 37.3% shooting, and then harassed Syracuse (18-10) into just 28% (14 for 50). That included a 5-for-23 performance from 3-point range that ultimately derailed the 11th-seeded Orange’s latest postseason push as a double-digit seed.
“We just talked all week about five people guarding the ball,” Sampson said. “It’s not one person or two people, it’s five — five people had to be in the right spot. I thought for the most part, we were.”
Syracuse’s previous low tournament output was 51 points against Princeton in the 1992 first round.