No. 1 Houston tops East Carolina to claim outright AAC title


GREENVILLE. N.C. (AP) — Marcus Sasser scored 22 points to help top-ranked Houston beat East Carolina 76-57 on Saturday night and clinch outright possession of the American Athletic Conference regular-season title.

Tramon Mark added 20 points for the Cougars (27-2, 15-1), while J’Wan Roberts had 17 points and 12 rebounds in Houston’s ninth straight victory.

And as with the long-running formula under Kelvin Sampson, the Cougars didn’t need a huge offensive performance to assert control of this one while leaning on defense and rebounding.

By halftime, the Cougars had blocked more shots (five) than the Pirates had even made (three) and led by 17. ECU finished the game shooting 32%, including 52% after halftime while trailing big, and Houston claimed a 48-28 rebounding advantage that included 19 second-chance points.

Sasser got off to a fast start before having to leave after rolling his right ankle, which happened as he bumped into ECU screener Brandon Johnson away from the ball. He had to be helped off the court and taken to the locker room, though he returned minutes later to make it a brief absence for the team’s leading scorer.

East Carolina (14-14, 5-10) had an energetic home crowd for the first-ever visit from a No. 1-ranked team to Minges Coliseum, as well as the program’s first game against a top-ranked opponent in more than 31 years. But the Cougars never trailed and led for all but 56 seconds.

Ezra Ausar scored 15 points to lead the Pirates, which got as close as 50-35 after halftime on Jaden Walker’s 3-pointer at the 11:37 mark. In fact, it was the first of three times that ECU pulled to within 15 — yet Houston answered immediately each time to keep the Pirates from sustaining any true momentum toward a stunning upset.


Houston: The Cougars have been rolling right along toward March with the kind of defensive efficiency that can make offensive possessions an adventure for opponents. And they arrived as the the only team in KenPom’s metrics to rank in the top 10 nationally of adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Outside of the brief scare when Sasser went down, Houston had a relatively low-drama trip to the state of North Carolina and claimed at least a share of the AAC regular-season crown for the fourth time in five seasons.

ECU: Pirates fans had memories of Houston’s last visit here two years ago, when the Pirates stunned the fifth-ranked Cougars for their lone win against a top-5 opponent and their first win against any AP Top 25 team in nearly two decades. This time, under first-year coach Michael Schwartz, they were getting their fourth shot against the No. 1-ranked team and first since losing at Duke in November 1991. But the Pirates saw any chance to a repeat upset wither amid that 3-for-25 shooting in the first half, including going the last 10:56 without a basket as Houston’s lead grew.


Houston: Hosting Wichita State on Thursday.

ECU: Hosting Tulane on Wednesday.


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