WICHITA, Kan. – Rob Gray is not your run-of-the-mill dork with a man bun. He’s an unrelenting, hyper-competitive assassin. Do not let the 6’1″ stature and boyish appearance fool you. He nearly single-handedly willed the Cougars to overpower the talented, tall Aztecs.
The final death blow was dealt by Gray, when the Aztecs and Cougars were tied 65-65. After burning off remaining clock time, Gray drove while covered by Trey Kell, with further block attempts by Malik Pope and Jalen McDaniels – only to pull off an acrobatic windmill layup between them with just 1.1 second left, putting the Cougars ahead by two. SDSU attempted one final answer with Matt Mitchell hurling a hail-mary to Kell, who heaved a three-point attempt that bounced off the rim.
Cougars win 67-65.
UH (27-7) advances to play the Michigan-Montana winner on Saturday for a spot in the West Region Sweet 16.
The Mountain West Tournament Champion San Diego State Aztecs(22-11) call it a season.
Gray, playing like a man possessed, had a career-high 39 points including 23 of the 28 points scored by Houston in the second half of the game. Devin Davis added nine points and nine rebounds for the Cougars.
This was the first NCAA Tournament win for Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars since Phi Slama Jama in the 1984 national semifinals.
The Aztecs were out of rhythm for the entire first half of the game, trailing 29-39 at the half. Their turnovers and missed free throws cut deeply. During the second half, the Aztecs slowly clawed their way back to tie with just under three minutes to go.
For much of the second half, Jalen McDaniels kept the Aztecs in the game. With about three minutes to go, Devin Watson finally came alive, started to sink shots, and went blow by blow with the enigmatic Gray.
With UH ahead 62-59, Watson hit a 3-pointer with 1:06 remaining, only for Gray to answer immediately with one of his own to put the Cougars back in front. Watson then tied the game at 65 with another 3-pointer with 29 seconds left, and had every attendee in the arena on their feet.
It was then that Gray set up for the final shot, breaking past Kell, splitting the tall Aztec defenders and sinking the game winning layup at 1.1 seconds left.
Aside from Trey Kell and Malik Pope, this was the first NCAA Tournament visit for many of the Aztecs. If failure is the mother of success, this experience could prepare the Aztecs for a deeper run in 2019 and beyond.
Congratulations to Kelvin Sampson, and Rob Gray (for a career high night), and to the Houston Cougars on their first NCAA Tournament win in 34 years.