Seeking No. 1 seed, Houston opens AAC tourney vs. ECU

Top-ranked Houston looks to add to an 11-game winning streak and build more momentum for the NCAA Tournament when it squares off against East Carolina in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament Friday afternoon in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Cougars (29-2) are the top-seeded team for the third time in the last four conference tournaments. Houston has won the last two American Championship titles and, at 11-0 on the road and 2-0 at home, is the only undefeated team in non-home games in the nation in 2022-23. No team has ever won the AAC tournament three consecutive times.

“If you don’t win, there is no second game,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “So, I don’t worry about three games in three days. I worry about one game in one day. I’m just proud of our kids. Proud of what they’ve accomplished. Regardless of how the season ends, I’ll make sure that they understand that.

“To be 29-2 and 17-1 (in the AAC) and win in every gym in the league, I’m just proud of our program.”

Houston had a bye into the quarterfinals and headed into the AAC tourney after a 67-65 victory over Memphis in its regular-season finale on Sunday. Jamal Shead had the game-winning bucket at the buzzer for the Cougars in a game in which leading scorer Marcus Sasser finished with 13 points and became Houston’s career 3-point-leader.

Sasser was named the league’s Player of the Year and was a unanimous selection for the All-Conference first team while Shead was recognized as the AAC’s Defensive Player of the Year and earned a spot on the league’s second team. Sampson garnered the league’s Coach of the Year award for the fourth time in the past six seasons.

Houston doesn’t have to worry about getting into the NCAA Tournament and will likely earn a No. 1 seed. But the Cougars can add one more chapter to their dominant stint in the AAC as they head out the door for the Big 12 beginning in July.

East Carolina (16-16), the ninth seed in this event, advanced to the quarterfinals with a 73-58 comeback win over eighth-seeded South Florida in the tournament’s first round on Thursday. RJ Felton and Jaden Walker scored 22 points each to lead the Pirates to their first AAC tournament victory since 2017.

Ezra Ausar and Dave Kasanganay added 10 points apiece for East Carolina, which trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half before forging an 11-2 run and then closing the half with a 16-4 burst to go up by eight points at the break. The Pirates cruised to the finish while expanding their lead to as many as 20 points in the final minute.

“Very proud of our guys to come back and fight, especially after a little bit of a slow start in terms of the first four minutes,” East Carolina coach Michael Schwartz said. “We were fortunate to be able to win this game. ”

Now comes the Cougars, who beat East Carolina 76-57 on the road on Feb. 25, in the only meeting between the teams this season.

“Yes, Houston is a No. 1 team, kudos and I’ll give respect to them, but I just feel like we just got to match their energy as we play against ’em,” Felton said.

–Field Level Media

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