Pitching a day earlier than usual, Tulane’s Alex Massey found his groove a few batters too late.

He did not allow another run after giving up a double, a single and a homer to the first three batters of Saturday’s game against Houston at Turchin Stadium — but by then the Green Wave faced a deficit it could not overcome.

Only one runner reached second base against Houston’s Kyle Dowdy, who pitched a complete-game shutout as the Cougars won 3-0, evening the series between American Athletic Conference contenders.

Tulane (29-17, 9-8), which pulled into a five-way tie atop the AAC standings Friday night, dropped a game off the pace while getting blanked for the sixth time this season. Houston (31-16, 10-7), the preseason conference favorite, rebounded from Friday 3-1 loss to set up a pivotal series decider Sunday.

Massey, Tulane’s normal Sunday starter, moved up a spot in the rotation but was knocked back right away. Leadoff hitter Kyle Survance ripped a double to center field, went to third on a single and came home on Chris Iriart’s bases-clearing blast to left-center.

Massey, from Catholic High in Baton Rouge, left a curveball up. Just like that, Tulane trailed 3-0.

“I just wasn’t very sharp,” Massey said. “I was throwing hittable pitches and they didn’t miss them. I need to be better in the first to give our team a chance to win. I let it slip away in the first inning. That wasn’t who I am.”

Massey (5-3), who had thrown a two-hitter against Houston in Houston on April 12, lost for the first time since March 11. He gave up a double the fourth batter he faced but only three more hits and no more runs the rest of the way before leaving with one out in the eighth inning.

“He preserved some people (in the bullpen), and he really gave us the chance to win,” Tulane coach David Pierce said. “He left two breaking balls up (in the first inning). That’s it.”

Tulane did not take advantage of the few opportunities it had against Dowdy (7-1). Leadoff hitters reached base in the third, fourth and sixth innings and were erased by double plays each time after batter failed to bunt them over.

“We didn’t get the bunts down,” Pierce said. “We missed signs and we just didn’t execute the short game today.”

The Wave finally put a runner in scoring position in the seventh when Hunter Williams singled with two outs and Lex Kaplan walked. Tyler Williams, who hit a game-winning home run in the 10th inning against Southeastern Louisiana on Tuesday and a tying single against Houston on Friday, then flew out to left field on a ball he hit well, but not well enough.

Dowdy limited Tulane to one run on four hits in seven innings at Houston, then matched that four-hitter in two more innings at Turchin Stadium.

“He was just hitting his spots, which kept us off balance,” said Kaplan, who went 0-for-2. “He did the same thing to us as he did in Houston. We just have to come out tomorrow ready to play.”

Pierce said the Wave will go with former midweek starter Patrick Duester for Sunday’s finale instead of Emerson Gibbs, who started Tuesday against Southeastern. Gibbs has allowed 42 hits and 19 runs over 32 innings in his previous six weekend starts.

Duester (5-4, 1.78 ERA) has started only once since March, pitching five innings and giving up one earned run in a loss at LSU on April 21.

Gibbs will be available in the bullpen.

“I’m comfortable with what we have to try to win the series tomorrow,” Pierce said.