It may not make the Cougar faithful forget their shocking upset loss to Southern Miss in the Conference USA football championship game, but Houston's athletics program did exact a measure of revenge on Saturday night, as they knocked off the Golden Eagles on the hardwood, 73-71.
The loss doesn't, by any means, eliminate USM from contention for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament, but it certainly puts pressure on head coach Larry Eustachy's team. The Golden Eagles are 20-5 overall, but there aren't a lot of quality wins on the resume, and some head-scratching losses to Denver, UAB, and now the Cougars.
For the Cougars, the win means taking a step towards improving their seeding come conference tournament time. (Houston is now in sole possession of ninth place, two games behind Rice and UTEP.) Outside of that, the win provides some valuable confidence for a young team for next year.
On Saturday, Houston played some of its best defense of the year en route to a 38-27 halftime lead. Unfortunately, it took less than two minutes of second half play for the Golden Eagles to slice that lead down to 4. USM eventually led by as much as four in the second half, taking a 53-49 lead with 8:40 to play. But the Cougars showed resilience, battling back to tie the score at 53, and again at 55 with 6:36 to go. That's when junior Jonathon Simmons drove to the basket for a lay-up plus the foul, giving UH a lead it would not relinquish.
The Coogs found themselves with a three-point lead as the clocked wound down to under a minute left in regulation, and eight straight made free throws to close the game out by Darian Thibodeaux, Simmons, and Joseph Young were key to holding off a last-second barrage of Golden Eagle three-pointers.
Simmons lead Houston with 28 points, while Alandise Harris (11), TaShawn Thomas (11) and Young (10) also scored in double figures. The freshman Thomas also contributed 11 rebounds for a double-double. The Cougars had a 39-28 advantage on the boards.
Confusingly, the Cougars are now 2-2 against the top three teams in Conference USA, and 2-6 against the rest of their conference foes. While inexperience and lack of depth have been issues, wins like Wednesday's make Houston's six double-digit conference losses hard to fathom.
The Cougars have four regular season games remaining - at Marshall on Wednesday, home dates with SMU and Tulane, and a season-closer at Rice.