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Even though the jury remains out on them, the Houston Cougars owe apologies to no one.
Houston advanced to its first Final Four in 37 years with its 67-61 Elite Eight win over Oregon State on Monday night in a game they inartistically turned from blowout, with a convincing first half, to survival, with a shaky second half.
The last time Houston made a Final Four was in 1984, when the Cougars were defined by their high-flying, slam-dunking “Phi Slama Jama” show led by Clyde Drexler and Co.
That bit of history is what Houston would prefer to be known for than this tidbit: The Cougars are now the first team in NCAA Tournament history to play four teams seeded in double digits en route to a Final Four.
Houston, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, will play No. 1 seed Baylor in the national semifinal on Saturday.
Saturday’s game will be Houston’s first of this tournament against a single-digit seed.
To get here, the Cougars (28-3) defeated No. 15 seed Cleveland State, No. 10 Rutgers, No. 11 Syracuse and on Monday night No. 12 Oregon State, which was trying to become the lowest seed ever to advance to a Final Four.
So, for all the great things this Houston team has done, the narrative lingers on, the fact that it has not had to beat a blue-chip team yet in this tournament.
“We just control what we can control,’’ Houston guard DeJon Jarreau said before the game. “That’s not our problem.’’
After the game, Jarreau, who scored 10 points and had eight rebounds and eight assists against Oregon State, sounded grateful to be in the Final Four.
“Relief,’’ Jarreau said when asked what his emotion was when the game, which Houston led by 17, finally ended in a mad scramble in the final minutes. “Relief for all the hard work we put in to get to this point, to prove to the world that we belong here. They try to say [things] about us playing double-[digit] seeds, but those double-[digit] seeds had to beat single-[digit] seeds in order to get to this point.’’
“It’s not supposed to be easy,’’ Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “I’m proud of these kids, proud of their heart. For this team to be 28-3 and going to a Final Four, this is one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve been around. It’s been a fun ride with this group.’’
It all looked like fun in the first half for Houston, which overwhelmed Oregon State with defense and domination of the offensive glass and looked like it would blow out the Beavers.
Houston built a 34-17 halftime lead and, in the process, held the Oregon State starting five to a total of seven points in the first 20 minutes.
On his way off the court at the half, Sampson must have had a premonition of some stress to come, because he looked tense during the CBS courtside interview despite being up by 17, saying tersely, “You don’t get any medals for 20 minutes.’’
Sampson’s words proved prophetic.
Oregon State, which outscored Houston 44-33 in the second half, turned the game around with a furious 17-3 rally that tied the game at 55-55 with 3:41 remaining.
Oregon State, which turned the ball over eight times in the first half, didn’t have a single turnover in the second half until it committed two killer giveaways in the final 47 seconds, allowing Houston to pull away.
“There were a lot of tears shed in the locker room, and we told our guys, ‘Remember how this feels,’ ’’ Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle said. “We came back after being down 17 and tied this thing up. Those plays down the stretch … we lost our discipline. We lost our character a little bit. But the overwhelming thing, we showed incredible heart and grit.’’
In the end, the difference was the Cougars dominating Oregon State with 19 offensive rebounds to seven, giving away a number of backbreaking second-chance points.
“Toughness — that’s what coach [Sampson] preaches every day — the toughest team is going to win,’’ said Houston’s Quentin Grimes, who scored 18 points. “We were tough and stayed poised in the end.’’
Marcus Sasser led the Cougars with a game-high 20 points. Justin Gorham had six points and 10 rebounds. Fabian White Jr. had eight points off the bench.
“It’s all about the players,’’ Sampson said. “This memory will last them a lifetime. They’ll tell their grandchildren about this. No matter what happens this weekend, it’s something that nobody can take from them. They’ll always be known as a Final Four participant. They earned it too. I mean, they earned it.’’
No apologies needed.
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