FORT WORTH, Texas – When Marcus Sasser crumbled awkwardly to the court after his feet slipped from under him while dribbling past midcourt, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson knew something was wrong even without really seeing what had happened.
“Marcus goes down, it means he’s hurt,” Sampson said. "We always say pain is an opinion. Some kids have a high opinion. Some kids have a low opinion. But Marcus doesn’t go down. He never misses practice, never misses a rep. He’s always there.”
Sasser, the American Athletic Conference player of the year, suffered an apparent groin injury with about 6 1/2 minutes left in the first half of the top-ranked Cougars’ 69-48 win over Cincinnati in their AAC tournament semifinal game Saturday.
Houston (31-2), which led throughout, was up by eight when Sasser got hurt and expanded that to 15 by halftime.
Sampson said Sasser would be re-evaluated, but indicated that the senior guard might not play when the two-time reigning regular-season champion Cougars try to win their third consecutive AAC tournament title against Memphis on Sunday.
“I would probably err on the side of holding him out because of how important next week is,” Sampson said. “But the most important thing is Marcus ... his healthy going forward is the most important thing here.”
Jamal Shead had 16 points and nine assists for the Cougars in the AAC semifinal, which matched two teams that are moving to the Big 12 next season. J’Wan Roberts had two second-chance layups in the game's first minute to put Houston ahead to stay. He finished with 16 points and eight rebounds, while Jarace Walker had 13 points.
“Just knowing that Marcus came out of the game and we still have teammates that we know that come off the bench and come with that same energy, it just shows a lot about our team," Roberts said. "It just shows everybody has each other's back and we never get away from what we’re doing, just staying together.”
Houston is a sure bet to be a No. 1 seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket comes out Sunday, no matter what happens in its fifth straight AAC Tournament championship game.
Landers Nolley II had 14 points for Cincinnati (21-12), which shot a season-worst 25.5% (13 of 51) from the field.
After 30 points for the Cougars on Friday, Sasser had four points in nine minutes against Cincinnati before the non-contact injury. He was dribbling between the conference logo and the 3-point line when his right foot appeared to slip, throwing him off-balance before his left foot slipped as well, sending him into an awkward split.
Sasser was a starter on the Cougars’ 2021 Final Four team but missed their run to the NCAA Elite Eight last year because of a broken bone in his left foot before Christmas. He didn’t talk to the media after the game.
Cincinnati was within 44-35 on a 3-point by Nolley with about 15 minutes left — the only time after halftime the Bearcats were within single digits. Shead then started a 17-3 run with a jumper, and had seven points in the spurt that pushed Houston's lead to 61-38.
“Obviously, they’re the No. 1-ranked team in the country for a reason, and they’re a difficult team to score on,” Bearcats coach Wes Miller said. “It was a tough night for us, because we didn’t score and we didn’t defend well. So that’s how you get that kind of a lopsided margin.”
Cincinnati: The Bearcats will miss the NCAA Tournament again, their last appearance being 2019, which was their ninth in a row. ... For the second straight day, Cincinnati was down 10 points less than seven minutes into the game. But there would be no comeback like Friday’s 84-54 victory over Temple for the Bearcats' largest-ever winning margin in a conference tournament game. Instead, they lost by more than 20 points for only the second time this season.
Houston: The Cougars bounced back from Friday’s season-worst shooting game (28.1% overall, 16 of 57). They nearly doubled that in the semifinal game, shooting 50.9% (29 of 57). ... Houston is 11-0 in Dickies Arena, and still hasn’t lost away from home this season.
Houston plays Memphis (25-8) in the tournament championship game Sunday. The winner gets the league's automatic NCAA Tournament berth, but both will be make the 68-team NCAA field — like last year, when the Cougars beat the Tigers 71-53 for the AAC tournament title.
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