HARTFORD, Conn. — Tulane figured it would have a tussle with Houston in its opening-round American Athletic Conference tournament game at the XL Center on Thursday night.
Eight days ago, the seventh-seeded Green Wave fell to 10th-seed Houston in a hard-fought 68-63 overtime loss.
- fortunately for Tulane, the outcome and the script was nearly the same in a 66-60 defeat in its inaugural AAC tournament tussle.
With the loss, Tulane’s season is likely over with an overall 15-16 record (6-12 conference). Houston (13-18), winners of four straight, will advance to meet second-seeded Tulsa on Friday night at 7 p.m.
In a contest that had seven lead changes, Tulane appeared ready to take over momentum in the game when they closed to 39-38 on a jumper by Payton Henson, who had a team-high 14 points, with 11:35 left in the second half. Henson proved to be a spark in the second half as he had nine of his points after halftime.
The Green Wave fell behind by nine points late in the first half before they rallied to close to within 28-25 at the half.
But Houston guard Cavon “Chuck” Baker, who didn’t play in the first half, came off the bench to score 12 straight points, draining three consecutive 3-pointers to push the Cougars’ lead to 51-39 with 8:08 left in the game.
Baker, who finished with 20 points, scored 11 points in a similar role in their previous meeting. Guard Jherrod Stiggers led the Cougars with a game-high 23 points.
From there, Tulane cutt the deficit to four when Kajon Mack was knocked over by Baker, who was called for an intentional foul.
However, Mack hit only one of two free throws, and the Green Wave failed to convert after receiving the ball after the call.
Tulane had trouble from the foul line in the second half, converting just 5 of 14 attempts after failing to hit two attempts in the opening half.
“He (Baker) hit some big shots against us last time, and he did the same tonight,” Tulane head coach Ed Conroy said.
“After he hit his first couple of shots, we shifted to have two guys on him, and he still hurt us.
“We missed some free throws in the second half, but our guys stepped up down the stretch. Houston hit some really tough shots, and they can present match-up problems.”
Houston coach Kelvin Sampson was appreciative of Baker’s effort.
“He (Baker) almost did the same thing the last time we played them,” Sampson said. “He was a little mad that he didn’t get in the first half, but he went out there and was able to create.
The game also marked a likely end to the careers of Tulane seniors Jay Hook and Tre Drye. Tulane will return nearly a full, tested cast next season, led by junior guard Louis Dabney, who added 13 points on the night.
“We worked hard all season, and we probably accomplished more than we thought we could,” said Hook, who also had 13 points and a game-high seven rebounds. “We wish we had more time to play with these guys. It is also about appreciation and looking forward for the program.”
Conroy was proud of his team’s determination throughout the season, as the Green Wave made a noticeable jump from their 11th-place predicted finish by most prognosticators.
“These guys were great leaders and showd great loyalty and belief in what we’re trying to build here,” Conroy said in reference to Hook, Drye, and Dabney. “They gave us a chance at the end tonight, and you saw the heart and resiliency we have.
“Our character showed and toughness showed in getting five road wins, which isn’t easy in our league.”