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NCAA Tournament: Houston’s blueprint to beat Arizona came from doing what other Pac-12 teams didn’t

arizona-wildcats-ncaa-tournament-houston-cougars-gameplan-defense-pac12-kelvin-sampson-screens-2022 Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

SAN ANTONIO—It turns out, the rest of the Pac-12 was doing it all wrong.

So says Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose gameplan to neutralize Arizona’s speedy, potent offense worked to near perfection on Thursday night in the Sweet 16.

The fifth-seeded Cougars held No. 1 Arizona to 33.3 percent shooting, its third-lowest efficiency of the season, and its second-lowest scoring output in a 72-60 loss.

“I watched Arizona play,” Sampson said. “I watched them play UCLA. I watched them play Colorado. I watched the way those teams guarded them, and I knew we weren’t going to guard them like those teams did. Those teams just switched them. They let them be comfortable. I knew we were going to make them uncomfortable. That’s what we do.”

Houston’s man defense resembled a wet blanket on Arizona’s ballhandlers, never giving them any space. The same went for when the Wildcats would try to pick and roll, which they attempted a lot early in the second half and which resulted into plenty of good looks in the paint.

“The start of the second half, you can tell the adjustment that Tommy made with those slip screens and the quick rolls and they were getting them, and we just turned around and said, okay, if you’re going to do that, then we’re going to do this,” Sampson said. “Instead of chasing them over the screen, we went under the screen, and that completely took the roller away.”

That roller was often Azuolas Tubelis, who had arguably the two worst games of his UA career in the past week. He played only 16 minutes against TCU, then against Houston went without a field goal for the first time in his college career.

“Tubelis is such a good passer, but by going under the screen, we took his passing away, and we forced him to be a scorer,” Sampson said. “So part of our game plan is we wanted Tubelis to have to score the ball and not pass it.”

Arizona’s three big men—Tubelis, Christian Koloko and Oumar Ballo—entered the game averaging 32 points per game on 59.8 percent shooting, taking nearly 22 shots per game. Against Houston, that trio was 3 of 17 from the field and had more points from the foul line (8) than the field (6).

“I knew their size would be a factor, but I didn’t think their size was … if we did what our game plan called for, I didn’t think the size was going to make us lose,” Sampson said. “Our team, we’re a tough bunch. We’ve gotten a lot better as the season goes on. But all the credit goes to these kids. I’m really proud of this bunch. They bought into the game plan tonight, and they’re not afraid of anybody.”

UA coach Tommy Lloyd said Houston didn’t do anything unexpected on defense, but that didn’t make it any easier.

“Houston is one of those teams where you’re better served off if you play them a couple times,” he said. “I think the first time you play them, they do the things they’re good at at such a high level, that it’s hard for you to get comfortable the first time around, and maybe the second time you play them, you can try to tell your guys what’s coming, but they actually have a lot better feel for it actually having experienced it.”

Arizona, which seemed to have at least one 10-0 run in every game this season, never scored more than six consecutive points on Thursday. That came midway through the first half on back-to-back 3-pointers by Pelle Larsson and Justin Kier, getting the Wildcats within 23-19.

“They’re a hard team to get runs on because offensively they control the tempo and they’re great offensive rebounding,” Lloyd said. “It’s hard to get multiple stops in a row to make those kind of runs. They get a ton of credit. They do what they do, and they do it at a really high level. That’s why they’re consistently good.”