Senior guard Rob Gray never liked the idea of waiting for the selection committee to put his No. 21 Houston Cougars into the NCAA Tournament.
Gray wanted to get there by winning the American Athletic Conference Tournament and gaining an automatic bid, an opportunity he will have Sunday when Houston plays in the championship game against No. 8 Cincinnati.
He scored 33 points to lead the Cougars to a 77-74 victory over No. 11 Wichita State in the semifinal round Saturday.
Gray, who dominated the second half, also made a key late-game steal and hit the final two free throws with 5 seconds remaining.
“We had high expectations coming in. We wanted to go on a three-game win streak and cut down the nets in the conference tournament,” Gray said. “It’s a big deal to come here and make the championship game, and even win it, because it changes the perception that maybe the committee has about our program.”
Corey Davis Jr. scored 19 points for Houston (26-6).
Landry Shamet led Wichita State (25-7) with 19 points while Shaquille Morris had 12, including 10 in the final seven minutes to keep the game close. Rashard Kelly and Austin Reaves each scored 10.
“In our conference, you hear a lot about Cincinnati and Wichita State, but I think that’s perception more than anything else,” Houston coach Kelvin Simpsonn said. “We have got a good team, too.”
Galen Robinson gave the Cougars a 75-74 lead with 1:12 remaining. It was set up with a steal by Gray. Robinson also intercepted a Wichita State inbounds pass with 9 seconds to go that set up Gray’s final free throws.
Houston led through much of the game, but Kelly gave Wichita State its first lead after intermission, 60-59, with 7:12 remaining.
The lead changed hands or was tied eight times in the final seven minutes.
“We lost to a very good team,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. “They’re a good defensive team. They’re gritty, tough and well-schooled. That’s just a tough one to lose.”
Houston dominated much of the first half, leading 37-31 at the break.
The Shockers, who came into the game averaging 83.3 points per game, were cold in the first half, when they shot just 27 percent (8 of 30) from the field.
Davis sparked the Cougars early by scoring eight consecutive points, allowing the Cougars to open a 20-11 lead.
Houston: After losing their opener in this tournament the past two years, the Cougars are thrilled to be in the title game.
Wichita State: This first season in the American Athletic Conference has been a good one for the Shockers, despite Saturday’s loss. They are ready for the NCAA Tournament.
Houston: Plays the AAC championship game against Cincinnati on Sunday.
Wichita State: Waits to see where it opens the NCAA Tournament.