No. 2 Houston Avoids No. 10 Rutgers' Upset Bid in 2021 NCAA Men's Tournament

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistMarch 22, 2021

Houston guard Tramon Mark (12), left, and guard DeJon Jarreau (3) walk off the court after defeating Cleveland State in a first-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Friday, March 19, 2021, at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)
Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

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.

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

HOUSTON AND-1 TO TAKE THE LEAD! @UHCougarMBK | #MarchMadness https://t.co/J0hwvwYZi7

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.

Mark Berman @MarkBermanFox26

DeJon Jarreau, playing with pain, back in the game. https://t.co/7NEd0UDYWu

Mark Berman @MarkBermanFox26

DeJon Jarreau: “I just wanted to win so bad. I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want to let my teammates down. A will to win.” (@LaDeeky)

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.

Brian T. Smith @ChronBrianSmith

How gutsy and driven is Jarreau? Cuts it to 58-53 with a swished 3. Then pulls down a tough rebound. Doing everything to try and find way to push UH into Sweet 16.

Grimes made another three during a 7-0 run for the Cougars that got them within two points.

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

GRIMES FROM DEEP. CLUTCH. ❄️ @UHCougarMBK | #MarchMadness https://t.co/UmHuoj5VZc

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).

Jerry Carino @NJHoopsHaven

Steve Pikiell has said all season, "We're going to need everybody." Montez Mathis is proof of that: 8 points on 3-4 FGs so far, his best game in weeks.

Jaden Daly @DalyDoseOfHoops

Montez Mathis hasn’t had a game like this probably since Syracuse or Illinois. His 10 points lead all scorers, and his defense is a big part of why Rutgers is 20 minutes from the #Sweet16. At halftime, it’s the Scarlet Knights 30, and Houston 27. #RHoops #GardenStatement

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.

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

Rutgers defense locking in early 💪 @RutgersMBB | #MarchMadness https://t.co/Bqiqx3w6ce

Aaron Breitman @aaron_breitman

Rutgers is playing to the moment and letting its defense be the driver. I think Houston thought up 16-9 they were about to pull away but great response from this veteran team. Everyone contributing which is a great sign.

mario elie @marioelie1

This Houston vs Rutgers game reminds me of 94 finals @HoustonRockets vs @nyknicks intense DEFENSE...🏀🏀🏀🏀 #MarchMadness

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.


What's Next?

Houston will take on Syracuse in the Sweet 16 on March 27 or 28.