KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The next stop for Houston's resurrected basketball program is the Big 12.
The Cougars would've preferred it to be the Elite Eight — and eventually back home for the Final Four.
The lone No. 1 seed left in the NCAA Tournament after Alabama fell to San Diego State about 30 minutes earlier, the defensive-minded Cougars didn't stick around much longer Friday night.
Houston simply couldn't overcome a 3-point barrage from Nijel Pack, the rebounding of Norchad Omier or the dazzling offense from Miami's talented backcourt in an 89-75 loss in the Midwest Region semifinals.
All-American guard Marcus Sasser had 14 points, but missed an open 3 early in the second half when the Cougars made their only big run against the fifth-seeded Hurricanes. Tramon Mark also had 14 points, but eight of them came in the opening minutes. And Jamal Shead tried to put the Cougars on his back, scoring 15, but many of those came with the game already out of reach.
It was a frustrating end to a season spent hanging around the top of the AP Top 25.
“I’m proud of my team for a lot of things. Unfortunately, one off night and you go home in this tournament,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “I’m disappointed we lost, sure. A lot of tears in that locker room because they care."
The problems began in earnest for Houston when, trailing 40-36, a foul sent Miami's Isaiah Wong to the line with 4 seconds left in the half — he made both free throws to extend the lead. And while the 50-50 call was enough to get Sampson plenty upset, it was a no-call when Mark was whacked on the wrist on a 3-point try as the buzzer sounded that left the 67-year-old coach on the verge of a technical foul from referee Brian O'Connell.
Deflated but not yet defeated, Houston closed within 49-45 on Shead's basket with about 16 minutes left. But that's when Sasser missed badly on a 3-point try that would would have pulled the Cougars within a point, and Jordan Miller's right-place, right-time putback of Wong's missed 3 at the other end put Miami in control again.
The Hurricanes quickly stretched the lead to 17 points before cruising into Sunday's game in the Elite Eight.
That lead? Far too much for a team that had overcome plenty.
There was Sasser, struggling with a groin injury from the American Athletic Conference Tournament, riding the bench for the second half of their NCAA Tournament opener against Northern Kentucky. Yet the Cougars got 16 points from potential one-and-done forward Jarace Walker while shutting down the upstart Norse in a 63-52 victory.
With Sasser closer to healthy for a second-round game against Auburn, the Cougars nevertheless dug a 41-31 hole. Yet their senior leader found a way to pour in 22 points, Houston turned up its relentless defense, and they outscored the Tigers 50-23 after the break in coasting to an 81-64 victory and a fourth straight Sweet 16 trip.
That’s where their season ended — two wins shy of a national semifinal to be played back in Houston.
“We were just taking it game by game. Everybody else was thinking about that,” Sasser said of a hometown Final Four. “Just because it’s in Houston, that don’t mean we get extra points or something like that when we step on the floor. We were just taking it game by game, but we fell a little short.”
The Cougars are no doubt looking toward a bright future in the Big 12, where they will begin play next season. After all, the same program that had been to two NCAA Tournaments since Guy Lewis ended his Hall of Fame coaching career in 1986 has now made it to five straight, winning a game in each and making the second weekend in the past four.
But it's also the end of an era for Houston.
Sasser and Reggie Chaney, crucial cogs in their Final Four team that lost to Baylor in the COVID-19 bubble in Indianapolis two years ago, will never suit up for the Cougars again. It's also possible that Walker, who some believe will be an NBA lottery pick, played his final game for Houston on Friday night.
So it was especially somber as Sasser led the Cougars back to the locker room one last time.
“It was an amazing run," he said. “Came up short, but the time that we got to spend throughout these months, I couldn’t have asked for nothing better. ... It was a great run, for sure.”
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25