Houston guard Jamal Shead celebrates after their win against Arizona in a college basketball game in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday, March 24, 2022, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

University of Houston point guard Jamal Shead’s outstanding ability as a floor leader has been on display all season.

But the sophomore from Manor has taken it to another level during the NCAA Tournament, so it wasn’t much of a surprise to see 6-foot-1 floor general take over Thursday night, knocking down big shots on the perimeter and slashing to the basket during the fifth-seeded Cougars’ Sweet 16 matchup against No.1 Arizona at AT&T Center in San Antonio.

When it was all over, the youngster who had to grow up fast when UH lost leading scorer Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark to season-ending injuries in December had 21 points and 6 assists and the Cougars were headed back to the Elite Eight for the second straight year after an improbable 72-60 win over the Wildcats.

“Jamal was 17 years old when he got to campus, so because of COVID he’s really a 19-year-old freshman,” said UH coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team will face Villanova on Saturday for the chance to make it to back-to-back Final Fours. “So he just had to grow with our team.

“Jamal has grown up, and this team has grown up with him.”

That was never more obvious than Thursday night in a game few expected the Cougars to win, yet they led wire-to-wire.”

The Cougars didn’t get the usual scoring production from senior leaders Fabian White and Taze Moore, senior guard Kyler Edwards and Shead did more than enough to stay out front of the Wildcats.

When Arizona started cutting the deficit in the season half, it seemed like either Shead or Edwards came up with big shots. Edwards finished with 19 points, primarily on the strength of five 3-pointers.

But the biggest thing the Cougars did is what they’ve done all season long and that is play with physicality and toughness while playing great defense. They limited Arizona to 33 percent shooting from the field and 32 percent from 3-point range.

“The best thing they did watching the game was fastbreaks, and they only had 9 fastbreak points,” Edwards said. “Credit to the coaches for getting us ready for this game, and just being together and being the toughest team pulled us through.”

UH, which is now the only Texas team remaining in the Tournament, also benefited from a decidedly pro-Cougars crowd that essentially made it feel like a home game.

“The energy was just electric,” said Shead, who has averaged 17.0 points and 5.3 assists while shooting nearly 46 percent from 3-point land during the Cougars’ first three Tournament games. “It was awesome to have that type of crowd here. We’re going deep in the playoffs, but it was just electric out here.”