First-team All-America guard Marcus Sasser scored just five points before aggravating a groin injury, but top-seeded Houston fought its way to a 63-52 victory over 16th-seeded Northern Kentucky in Midwest Regional first-round play Thursday night in Birmingham, Ala.
Freshman Jarace Walker led the Cougars (32-3) with 16 points while Jamal Shead battled a troublesome knee to contribute 13 points. J'Wan Roberts added 11 points and 12 rebounds as Houston limited Northern Kentucky to 27.5-percent shooting and won the rebounding battle by a 42-33 count.
Houston advanced to face ninth-seeded Auburn (21-12) on Saturday. Sasser's status for this game is uncertain. After missing Houston's AAC tournament championship game Sunday, he started and played most of the first half Thursday -- but went to the bench shortly before halftime complaining of pain in his left groin and did not return.
"Very concerned because of the quick turnaround," Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said of Sasser. "Plus you're playing a road game. Normally you don't have to play road games in the NCAA Tournament, but Auburn's got great fans. They'll be here in force. It'll be like a road-game environment."
Sam Vinson paced Northern Kentucky (22-13) with 15 points while Trey Robinson added 11. The Norse led for several minutes in the first half, forged a tie early in the second half and had multiple chances to re-take the lead -- but finished 5 of 33 from 3-point range as they tried to vain to catch up late.
The Norse trailed just 30-27 at the break despite getting outrebounded 23-13 and shooting 33.3 percent from the field and 16.7 percent on 3-pointers.
Northern Kentucky pulled into a 36-36 tie on two Marques Warrick free throws with 15:44 to go, but missed two shots to take the lead. Houston finally broke the knot with Shead's friendly bounce on a 3-pointer and two Roberts free throws.
Vinson snapped the Norse's nearly four-minute scoreless skein with a driving layup, but Houston freshman Emanuel Sharp swished 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to give the Cougars a 47-38 lead -- their largest to that point -- with 10:50 to play.
Warrick swished a 25-footer from the top of the key with 4:38 left to pull Northern Kentucky within 53-48, but the Norse couldn't get closer.
--Field Level Media