“I give these guys right here all the credit in the world,” Tulane Head Coach Ed Conroy said. “There are a million distractions being thrown at us, going back to the summer with some guys leaving and some injuries. But these guys are the most resilient bunch, most fun group to coach, and I love them and you saw their fight tonight.”
Tulane started the game looking stronger and quicker than Houston early, muscling their way to a 6-2 lead in the first few minutes. The Cougars found themselves marred in foul trouble with five players picking up a foul in the first 8 minutes.
The Green Wave’s offense hit a rough stretch around the 12:00 minute mark and opened up a window for Houston to move out in front. The Cougars 14-4 run was led by junior Damyean Dotson and sophomore Rob Gray Jr. and put them up by two baskets heading into the final 9 minutes of the half.
In the first half, a total of 24 fouls were called and both teams found themselves in the bonus by the midway point. Tulane began to make up some of the ground they had lost on Houston as the first half was coming to a close as they spread the scoring around.
“I think we weren't mentally focused coming in. I feel like we didn't respect [Tulane],” redshirt senior LeRon Barnes said.
Seven Tulane players scored points in the game while Houston kept most of their early scoring between Gray Jr, Dotson and freshman guard Galen Robinson. The Cougars scoring trio combined for 32 of the 36 points that the team scored in the first half.
Tulane sophomore Dylan Osetkowski took over the game in the first couple of minutes with a couple quick buckets to help cut the Houston lead in half. Osetkowski finished the game with 18 points and 8 rebounds after his do-it-all performance against UCF on Thursday night.
The Green Wave had a bracket-buster vibe about them as they continued to keep the Cougars within two baskets for the majority of the second half. Houston’s lead evaporated with 12:33 remaining in the game, leading to a dogfight for the right to take on the winner of Memphis/Tulsa later in the night.
Despite the close game, reports were swirling at halftime that Conroy had been fired as head coach of Tulane.
“I had two guys behind the bench put their phone up and tell me ‘Hey, Coach you’re gone,” Conroy said. “So that was fun when you're trying to come back from an eight-point deficit. But you know what? I talked to our guys about it before the game and what we have been saying all along, we are the madness.”
Houston’s free throw shooting hurt them drastically in the final minutes, allowing Tulane to take the lead on two Melvin Frazier free throws with 2:46 left in the game. Both teams continued to trade shots after that with a total of four lead changes before an errant shot by Frazier put the ball in Houston’s hands.
“Tonight, from the get-go, it didn't feel right,” Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson said. “I don't know why, but it didn't feel right. Maybe when we get back and talk to them individually, we can come up with something better, but when you lose a game like this, the first thing you do as a head coach, you take responsibility.”
Forced to foul and hope for the best, the Green Wave sent Houston redshirt senior LeRon Barnes to the line. Barnes missed his second free throw and a shred of hope was left for Tulane with 19 seconds remaining. Tulane drove down the court when Malik Morgan dished to a wide open Cameron Reynolds for a 3-pointer to seal Houston’s exit in the AAC Tournament quarterfinal.
“We just came out here to play,” Reynolds said. “We weren't worried about anything outside. We have been preparing for this win, for these wins, for the past couple months, and we just came out there to fight, every time is a fight.”