Houston will take the court as the nation’s top-ranked team for the first time in nearly 40 years Tuesday when the Cougars host Norfolk State.
Houston (6-0) ascended one spot by receiving 45 of 63 first-place votes in the Associated Press Top 25 poll of national media. North Carolina (5-2), which had been No. 1 all season, dropped all the way to 18th after absorbing losses last week to Iowa State and then-No. 18 Alabama.
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“It’s not like we went online and applied for it and waited for a response back. We’ve been working for this,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “But remember, it’s a rental. You don’t own it. You’re just renting it because someday, somebody else is going to be No. 1.”
If the Cougars want to extend their first trip atop the poll since the days of Phi Slama Jama, they likely will have to play better against Norfolk State (5-2) than they did in a 49-44 win over visiting Kent State on Saturday.
Marcus Sasser scored 19 points and Jamal Shead hit the go-ahead jumper with 48 seconds left as Houston overcame a sluggish start against the Golden Flashes.
Sasser added five rebounds and two assists, while J’Wan Roberts added 11 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. Shead finished with six points and five rebounds.
Houston, which trailed 30-24 early in the second half, shot a season-low 32 percent (16 of 50) from the field, including 2 of 17 (11.8 percent) from 3-point range, winning largely due to outrebounding the Golden Flashes 56-33.
“‘That’s the first time all year someone has punched us in the mouth,” Sampson said. ”We’re used to punching other people in the mouth around here.”
The last time the Cougars were ranked No. 1, in the final poll of the 1982-83 season, Clyde “The Glide” Drexler and Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon went on to lead Phi Slama Jama to the national title game before failing to NC State in the final seconds.
Norfolk State, meantime, extended its winning streak to three games with a 91-41 win over visiting St. Mary’s (MD), a Division III school, on Nov. 22.
The Spartans jumped out to a 26-3 lead on St. Mary’s and never looked back. Three Norfolk State players contributed 15 points to the effort: Dane Tate Jr., Kris Bankston and Daryl Anderson.
Norfolk State is led by Joe Bryant Jr., the reigning Mid-American Athletic Conference player of the year, who averages a team-high 14.4 to go along with 3.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists.
Caheim Brown averages 13.3 points and 3.5 rebounds, while Bankston chips in 13.0 points and a team-high 7.7 rebounds. Christian Ings adds 11.6 points and 4.4 assists, with Tate posting 8.8 points and 6.0 rebounds.
“The rest of the crew is what helped Joe become Joe and Joe gets a lot of attention,” Norfolk State coach Robert Jones, whose team has won the past two MEAC tournaments, said. “But we have a lot of pieces around him.”
Norfolk State will be facing its third top-10 team already this season, losing at No. 5 Baylor 87-70 on Nov. 11 and falling 86-56 at No. 8 UCLA on Nov. 14.
–Field Level Media
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