The Houston Cougars capped off a late comeback to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years with a 63-60 victory over Rutgers in the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament Sunday.
Houston breezed through the opening round with a 31-point win over No. 15 seed Cleveland State. Head coach Kelvin Sampson's team has now won nine straight games overall, with this being just their third game decided by single digits during the streak.
Rutgers was one of the best stories coming out of the first round. The Scarlet Knights' 60-56 win over Clemson on Friday was their first tournament victory since 1983. They have posted back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1990-91 and 1991-92.
For most of the game, it looked like Rutgers was on its way to a win. Tramon Mark made the biggest play of the game with a putback layup off a DeJon Jarreau missed jumper that tied the game. He made a free throw to complete the three-point play and put Houston up 61-60 with 24.1 seconds remaining.
Houston's attempt to take the lead on its next possession fell apart when Geo Baker lost control of the ball as he was attempting to drive. Marcus Sasser picked up the ball and made both of his free throws after being fouled with nine seconds left.
With no timeouts remaining, Ron Harper Jr.'s three-point attempt at the buzzer hit off the side of the rim to preserve Houston's win.
Notable Game Stats
- Quentin Grimes (HOU): 22 points (7-15 FG), 9 rebounds, 2 steals
- DeJon Jarreau (HOU): 17 points (6-12 FG), 5 rebounds, 2 assists
- Geo Baker (RUT): 14 points (5-10 FG), 4 assists
- Montez Mathis (RUT): 10 points (3-6 FG)
Grimes, Jarreau Lift Cougars
Houston entered the tournament as one of the most balanced teams in the country. It had a net rating of 19.2 points per game during the regular season, with the defense ranked second in the nation with 58.2 points allowed per contest.
While the defense did its part early, Houston's inability to figure out Rutgers' defense put it in an early hole that for a while seemed insurmountable. It trailed by as many as 10 points in the second half and was down 60-56 with 2:04 remaining.
Grimes and Jarreau came to life late and carried Houston's offense when it needed it the most. They combined to make 13 of the team's 22 field goals, including seven of the eight three-pointers.
Jarreau entered the game with a hip injury that limited him to one minute against Cleveland State. He appeared to injure himself again in the second half Sunday when he tumbled to the floor but was able to return and play through it.
When Houston was trying to close the gap late in the second half, Jarreau made a crucial three-pointer that cut the deficit to 58-53.
Grimes made another three during a 7-0 run for the Cougars that got them within two points.
Houston's poor free-throw shooting looked like it might cost the team down the stretch. It missed four free throws in the final three minutes of regulation, including two straight by Grimes right before he made that crucial three-pointer.
As Houston looks to move forward in the tournament, it will need more significant contributions from the rest of the roster. The three starters aside from Grimes and Jarreau combined to score eight points on 3-of-15 shooting.
There will be time for Sampson and his staff to make adjustments before the Sweet 16. At this point in the season, being able to survive and advance is all that matters. The Cougars are one step away from their first Elite Eight appearance since 1984.
Late Collapse Ends Rutgers' Season
When things were going right for Rutgers, Montez Mathis gave the offense a surprising lift early in the game.
The junior guard entered this game averaging 8.2 points per game. He surpassed that total in the first half with 10 points on 3-of-4 shooting (2-of-2 from three).
Mathis had almost as many points on his own as the entire Rutgers starting five in the first half (14). He wound up being held scoreless in the second half and miss both of his field-goal attempts.
Of course, the Scarlet Knights' defense has always been their key to success. They held Clemson to 56 points on 35.6 percent shooting in the round of 64. Houston seemed likely to provide a much more difficult test.
Rutgers wasn't giving Houston any easy looks at the basket for most of the game. It held the American Athletic Conference champions to 44 percent shooting overall and looked like the more aggressive team.
Down the stretch, though, Rutgers' inability to score proved to be its downfall. The Scarlet Knights were outscored 14-2 over the final 4:55. Baker's layup with 2:04 remaining was their last scoring of the game.
Rutgers also struggled to box out for the entire game. The Cougars had a 16-8 advantage in offensive rebounds, including Mark's with 26 seconds remaining that wound up being the biggest play of the game.
Despite the loss, this season was another significant step forward for Rutgers under head coach Steve Pikiell.
Houston will take on Syracuse in the Sweet 16 on March 27 or 28.