GREENVILLE. N.C. (AP) — Kelvin Sampson had no interest in breaking down the ins and outs of top-ranked Houston’s first-half lockdown on East Carolina.
Not when compared to having another American Athletic Conference regular-season title in hand.
“I’m happy for our kids to be rewarded with winning a conference championship,” Sampson said after Saturday night’s 76-57 win at East Carolina to clinch outright possession of the league’s regular-season title. “That’s not easy to do.”
Marcus Sasser scored 22 points to lead the Cougars (27-2, 15-1), who have won at least a share of the crown four times in five seasons. This time, it comes with the Cougars charging toward March with a perfect road record.
“Our kids know how to win — I say that a lot,” Sampson said. “But we’ve figured out how to play our system, be unselfish.”
To his point, Sasser got plenty of help from Tramon Mark (20 points) and J’Wan Roberts (17 points, 12 rebounds) in Houston’s ninth straight victory.
And as with the long-running formula under Sampson, the Cougars didn’t need a huge offensive performance to assert control of this one while leaning on defense and rebounding.
By halftime, the Cougars had blocked more shots (five) than the Pirates had even made (three) and led by 17. ECU finished the game shooting 32%, including 52% after halftime while trailing big, and Houston claimed a 48-28 rebounding advantage that included 17 offensive rebounds and 19 second-chance points.
East Carolina (14-14, 5-10) had an energetic home crowd for the first-ever visit from a No. 1-ranked team to Minges Coliseum, as well as the program’s first game against a top-ranked opponent in more than 31 years. But the Cougars never trailed and led for all but 56 seconds.
“The atmosphere (fans) had in there, they delivered at the highest level — the students, this community, Greenville,” first-year ECU coach Michael Schwartz said. “It was electric in there. They delivered. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to deliver the same back to them.”
Ezra Ausar scored 15 points to lead the Pirates, who got as close as 50-35 after halftime on Jaden Walker’s 3-pointer at the 11:37 mark. In fact, it was the first of three times ECU pulled within 15 — yet Houston answered immediately each time to keep the Pirates from sustaining any true momentum toward a stunning upset.
Houston: The Cougars have been rolling right along toward March with the kind of defensive efficiency that can make offensive possessions an adventure for opponents. And they arrived as the the only team in KenPom’s metrics to rank in the top 10 nationally of adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Houston ended up with a relatively low-drama trip to the state of North Carolina.
ECU: Pirates fans had memories of Houston’s last visit here two years ago, when the Pirates stunned the fifth-ranked Cougars for their lone win against a top-5 opponent and their first win against any AP Top 25 team in nearly two decades. This time, they were getting their fourth shot against the No. 1-ranked team and first since losing at Duke in November 1991. But the Pirates saw any chance to a repeat upset wither amid that 3-for-25 shooting in the first half, including going the last 10:56 without a basket as Houston’s lead grew.
The Cougars had at least one bit of drama: a brief injury exit for Sasser.
Averaging a team-best 16.9 points, he got off to a fast start before having to leave after rolling his right ankle, which happened as he bumped into ECU screener Brandon Johnson away from the ball. He had to be helped off the court and taken to the locker room, though he returned minutes later to make it a brief absence for the team’s leading scorer.
“I was just happy he was good,” Mark said.
Houston: Host Wichita State on Thursday.
ECU: Host Tulane on Wednesday.