It was a good rebound game for the Houston Cougars. And a good conference win.
After blowing a 19-point second half lead to lose 88-85 to Tulane on Feb. 9, Houston (15-8) bounced back to beat UTEP (13-10) 79-61 on Wednesday night. The Miners entered the contest with a 6-3 record in Conference USA while the Cougars were 3-6.
"It's a start, but we can't get too comfortable,” forward Danuel House said. “Just because we won at home doesn't mean we have it figured out. We have to learn how to put it all together. We have to be able to win at home and on the road while finishing each game with solid defensive play."
“To give one away like we did Saturday and come back and respond, I was really proud of our team,” head coach James Dickey said. “The one disappointing thing is we missed too many free throws. Overall, I expect our team to play like this. We beat a good basketball team tonight."
"Tonight, we didn't relax at all in the second half,” forward TaShawn Thomas said. “The past few games we had the lead going into the second half and then came out weak. Throughout practice this week, we stressed the importance of staying strong for the entire game, and we were able to accomplish that tonight."
Thomas nearly had a triple-double with 24 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. House added 19 points and five rebounds, Jherrod Stiggers had 13 points and eight assists, and Joseph Young chipped in 12 points and four rebounds.
Adding a defensive spark off the bench was freshman center Valentine Izundu. UTEP pulled within seven with 14:54 left to go in the second half when Houston called a timeout. Out of that break, House knocked down two free throws followed by two big blocks by Izundu, the first leading to a three-pointer by Stiggers to put the Cougars back up by 12.
“Valentine Izundu had some quality time and a good presence defensively,” Dickey said. “We're going to be playing him more and more. He's been getting better in practice and doing extra work on his own.”
"Everybody loves watching Valentine play, especially when he does well,” Thomas said. “He is the youngest player on our team, and everyone considers him their little brother. When your little brother does well then you can't help but be excited for him and the time he got on the court."
Other stats that stood out: 9-of-13 from beyond the arc, 32 rebounds, 17 bench points, 32 points in the paint, and 19 assists.
“We shared the ball really well, and that was evident in our 19 assists,” Dickey said. “TaShawn deserves a lot of credit. He had seven assists in the game. When you're a good player like that you're going to command the double team. He did a good job reading tonight. We shared the ball and did a good job.”
The Cougars also stressed post play Wednesday night.
"What we talked about was to get the ball to the block and get a paint touch,” Dickey said. “A paint touch doesn't necessarily mean you have to throw it to a big guy, you can penetrate by a guard or penetrate-and-pitch, and our guys understood that. When you look at that, we still had nine three pointers in the game, and we still took good shots. That's the way that we want our guys to play and they understand it.”
"Our coaches told us to get the ball inside and move around, so that I could get lucky and get a back door bucket,” Thomas said. “They told us that the ball should always go down low because you want the defense to collapse. The big guys can then look outside for us to get an open shot."
The Cougars were able to get the win in front of a few legends who were back in Hofheinz Pavilion. Otis Birdsong, Ollie Taylor and Dwight Davis signed autographs before the game and will be active in the NBA All-Star Weekend activities.
Houston’s next game will be at Tulsa on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.