Taze Moore scored 21 points and Jamal Shead added 18 as the Houston Cougars, a Final Four team last season, advanced in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament with a 68-53 win Sunday over Illinois, ousted in the opening weekend for the second straight year.
The fifth-seeded Cougars (31-5) are making another serious run at a national title despite losing their two best players to season-ending injuries. Now, with a trio of transfers and a defense with some serious teeth, they’re headed home to Texas for the next round — in San Antonio, against either Arizona or TCU.
Kyler Edwards added 15 points for Houston, a team often overlooked but making major noise again this March.
With Houston’s fans chanting “Sweet 16, Sweet 16” in the closing seconds, Edwards dropped one last 3-pointer from the corner and seconds later lifted Moore, another of Houston’s transfers, off the floor.
The Cougars faced major adversity in December when guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, two of the holdovers from last year’s talented squad, were lost to injuries. But instead of folding, Houston’s players formed an even tighter bond.
For Illinois, it’s another year of deep disappointment. The fourth-seeded Fighting Illini (23-10) were determined to go farther after being bumped by Loyola Chicago last year, but couldn’t get past the second round again.
All-American center Kofi Cockburn did his part, scoring 19 in 38 minutes to lead Illinois. The big man spurned the NBA last year for a shot at some tournament redemption, only to come up short in what was likely his last college game.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood credited Houston’s defense, but didn’t have an answer for his team’s poor shooting (6 of 25 on 3s) or turnovers (17). He got a nice lift from freshmen Luke Goode and RJ Melendez, but not enough from his other regulars.
Down by 12 in the first half, Illinois battled back and was within 56-49 after Alfonso Plummer’s four-point play.
But after Shead hit a floater, Houston’s Fabian White Jr. made the play of the game by racing into the backcourt and swatting the ball before it went out of bounds with his left hand to Moore for a layup.