Rachal helps Tulsa upset No. 5 Houston
It was fitting it came down to the game's best player, Brandon Rachal, deciding the game in an ending that couldn't have been any more appropriate.
Rachal sank two free throws with 0.1 second remaining to boost Tulsa to a 65-64 victory over No. 5 Houston on Tuesday night at the Reynolds Center.
Rachal, who led all scorers with 20 points, including 8 of 8 from the free throw line, and also was TU's leader in rebounds with seven, helped Tulsa in beating its highest ranked opponent in 24 years since winning at No. 5 UCLA on Nov. 20, 1996 in the season opener.
"No pressure, you made every free throw tonight, just go shoot the ball the same way," is what Rachal was telling himself before his game-winning free throws. "You shoot free throws every day, you work on it every day. Just knock them down."
Tulsa (5-3, 2-1 AAC) led most of the second half but fell behind 64-63 on a floater along the baseline by Caleb Mills with 6.3 seconds left. With both teams left without a timeout, Tulsa hurried down the court for a final attempt.
Fortunately for Tulsa, Elijah Joiner found Rachal, who found an opening to drive down the middle of the lane. Rachal was subsequently mugged with 0.1 left on the clock. He calmly waited while Houston coach Kelvin Sampson took his allotted time subbing in for the fouled out Brison Gresham.
Rachal perfectly swished the first attempt to the tie the game, then rattled around the second attempt before it fell to win the game 65-64, as it was impossible for Houston to get off a shot in so short a period of time left in the game.
"It felt a little short at first, I ain't going to lie," said Rachal of his second free throw that won the game. "But when I saw how it bounced and it went over, I knew it was going to drop."
Houston (7-1, 2-1) had started the game out on fire, leading 15-4 and looking like it could blow out the Golden Hurricane. But TU went on a 11-1 run to tie the game at 15-15, and Joiner had a driving bucket at the halftime buzzer that hung for over a second before falling to give Tulsa a 31-30 halftime lead.
A shot-clock beating long three by Rachal with just over five minutes left in the game had Tulsa leading 60-54 in its biggest lead of the game. But the Cougars wouldn't go away, and tied the game at 62-62 with 51.2 seconds remaining.
Tulsa big man Rey Idowu hit one of two free throws with 26.4 seconds left to give Tulsa back the lead at 63-62, setting up the final sequence where each team burned its final timeouts.
Houston's dynamic guard tandem of Quintin Grimes and Marcus Sasser, who came into the game averaging 18.4 and 15.2 points, respectively, showed why they are so highly touted. Grimes led Houston with 19 points while Sasser added 14 points. Each had four assists.
But critical for TU was holding the tandem of Grimes and Sasser to a combined 9 of 32 from the field (28.1 percent).
"Houston is a hell of a team," said Tulsa coach Frank Haith. "We beat one of the best teams in the country here tonight. I don't know that anybody really understands that, but they are one of the best teams in the country."
Tulsa's next best player after Rachal on Tuesday was the irreplaceable Darien Jackson, who came off the bench to lead Tulsa with 33.39 minutes played. Jackson, a dynamic defender, had seven points and three steals.
Tulsa played almost half of the game with an all-guard lineup, and was especially effective in doing so against the athletic, accomplished Cougars.
"I felt like Houston is so good, defensively, having good ball handlers out there is important," Haith said of the move to go with a small lineup with no big man. "They are going to take your big guy away, a lot, because they are going to trap in the post.
"It was a gamble to do that because Rey did get us a couple of buckets. I thought he was good in there. But we felt like having good ball handling was a key against them."
The difference in the game was Tulsa's relentless defense, which held the normally explosive Houston offense in check for most of the contest.
"I felt good about our effort because I thought we were defending consistently, " Haith said. "We understand that defense has got to carry us. That is always going to give you a chance if you continue to defend.
"We're leading because of our defense. We held them to 35 percent from the floor, 19 percent from three. You can't do much better than that. Great win."
Haith was ecstatic about his team's play, especially since it seemed like Houston was getting a lot of breaks throughout the second half.
"A lot of things I think didn't go our way. Bang-bang plays didn't go our way, but proud of how we stayed with it," Haith said. "We know they're one of the best rebounding teams in the country. We get outrebounded by three but we fought hard.
"Good teams are able to fight through adversity through the game."
The win was satisfying, to say the least, for Rachal.
"It's a big win. Credit to them, they came in and battled us hard," said Rachal. "But I'm proud of my team, coaches, and proud of everybody. We're going to enjoy this one tonight but we're looking forward to the next one."