No. 25 Houston wary of challenge at SMU
Houston will try to keep the momentum from its record-setting offensive showing when the 25th-ranked Cougars travel up Interstate 45 for a battle with short-handed SMU on Wednesday at Moody Coliseum in Dallas.
It's the penultimate regular-season American Athletic Conference game for both teams and will have little to say on the league standings.
If Houston wins Wednesday and beats Connecticut at home on Sunday, it can still win the league title depending on how the two teams fare that are in front of the Cougars, but that's a longshot. Houston (22-6, 12-4 in AAC play) can finish no lower than third, a seeding that will allow it to miss the first day of play in the American Athletic Conference tournament.
Should the Mustangs (16-13, 6-10 in AAC play) win Wednesday and on the road on Sunday at league doormat USF, they could vault into sixth place in the conference standings.
Houston head to north Texas on the heels of a 109-58 victory over East Carolina in which the Cougars led 62-13 at halftime. That set an AAC record for points in a half (conference-play only) and produced their highest-scoring first half since racking up 69 in 131-62 win against Florida Tech at Hofheinz Pavilion on Nov. 22, 2005.
"At the beginning of the game, we got a lot of stops, which allowed us to play in the open court," said Houston's Rob Gray, who scored 19 points and recorded 11 assists in the win. "Once we get in the open court, our team is coached well to find the open guy and get to the best shooter. That's what we did. Just a normal day in the office. We were making a lot of threes in a row."
Houston's advantage expanded to as many as 61 points in the second half. The Cougars finished with 18 3-pointers, which tied a conference record they set against Tulsa on Jan. 11.
Despite the easy win, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said he would not worry about getting his team to prepare the right way for SMU. The Cougars won the first meeting of the 2017-18 season at home, 67-58.
"I don't have to refocus the guys -- they do it themselves," Sampson said. "SMU puts you in a tough position, because they only play one big at a time, goes small and makes you go small. Last time, our small lineup helped us, but it took away half of our roster. The strength of our team is depth up front. They're a tough matchup for everybody and gave Wichita State a fit who only beat them by six points. It is going to be a tough game for us."
The Mustangs were unable to get enough stops in their latest game to knock off No. 12 Wichita State, falling at home 84-78 on Saturday.
SMU has played the last seven games with seven or less scholarship student-athletes available. Jarrey Foster (left knee) and Everett Ray (left foot) are out for the season and Shake Milton, the team's leading scorer, has missed the past seven games with a broken right hand.
Jahmal McMurray led the way offensively for SMU, scoring a game-high 28 points with a 6-of-11 showing from beyond the arc. McMurray has now scored 20 or more points in five games this year. His dynamic scoring has been huge for the Mustangs in the absence of Milton.
"I'm proud of the effort of our guys -- we hung in there with one of the best teams in the country," SMU coach Tim Jankovich said. "But we kind of panicked when Wichita State made its run and had some empty positions. We are so short-handed, and Wichita State is very good, but there were ways we could have won this game if we just executed a little better."
Wednesday's game will be its 10th this season for SMU against a team ranked or receiving votes. The Mustangs are 4-5 in those matchups with three wins against ranked teams and are 13-4 at home this season. One has to believe that SMU will be riled up and ready, especially on Senior Night.
"We have to send off our seniors the right way and we will fight tooth and nail to make that happen," Jankovich said. "The bad news is that we are playing one of the best teams in our league. Houston is playing great and they are a very, very tough out. We will have to do better with our rebounding and find someone that can score the ball for us.
The Mustangs have won seven of the last nine regular-season meetings over the Cougars. Since joining the American Athletic Conference, SMU leads the series 6-1, with its only loss at Houston this season.
Updated February 27, 2018