DALLAS — The 25th-ranked Houston Cougars can still finish second in the American Athletic Conference thanks to their 69-56 win at SMU on Wednesday night.
Coach Kelvin Sampson said that isn’t a high priority for him.
“It doesn’t matter to me, whether you’re a 2 seed or a 3 seed,” he said. “We’ve beaten everybody in this league. If you want to cut down the nets, you’ve got to win three games.”
Rob Gray had 19 points and nine assists and Corey Davis Jr. added 17 points for Houston (23-6, 13-4), which has won seven of eight games. The Cougars are a half game behind second-place Wichita State, which will visit UCF on Thursday.
“We could have taken care of the ball better and rebounded better,” said Gray, who fouled out with 2:28 to play, “but I’ll take it.”
SMU (16-14, 6-11) has lost seven of eight games since leading scorer Shake Milton was sidelined with a hand injury.
Jahmal McMurray scored 13 of his 17 points in the first half to lead the Mustangs. He was the only SMU player to score during the first 9½ minutes.
Houston outscored SMU 17-4 in points off turnovers and 28-16 in points in the paint.
The Cougars’ largest lead was 18 points late in the second half after a 36-24 advantage at halftime. The Mustangs missed 11 consecutive field-goal attempts during the first half.
“Our defense the first half set the tone,” Sampson said. “It’s a good road win. Now we have a chance to finish undefeated at home.”
SMU coach Tim Jankovich reviewed Houston’s statistics — shooting 44 percent, 29 percent on 3-pointers, limited to eight free-throw attempts — and shook his head.
“Those are winning numbers,” Jankovich said. “You hope for that most nights, especially against a team as good as Houston is this year.”
Cougars senior guard Wes Van Beck, who has made seven starts this season, missed his second consecutive game with an injured hand.
SMU seniors Ben Emelogu and Akoy Agau were honored before tipoff. Emelogu has played two seasons for SMU after transferring from Virginia Tech. Agau has played one season for SMU as a graduate transfer after previously playing for Louisville and Georgetown.
Houston leads the all-time series 49-32 with games played as non-conference opponents and as members of the Southwest Conference, Conference USA and the American.
Houston shot 31 3-pointers and 30 2-pointers. Davis was 5-for-15 behind the line, and Armoni Brooks was 3-for-8. The Cougars went into play averaging 22 shots from behind the line, hitting 39.6 percent.
“I like for them to shoot threes,” Sampson said. “We usually do a better job offensively. I just don’t think the game had a great vibe to it.”
Because of injuries and NCAA-mandated scholarship limitations, SMU played with seven scholarship players and has had seven or fewer during its last eight games.
“Every time I open my mouth, I feel like there’s an excuse, but it’s a fact – I started saying this three and a half weeks ago. We can’t practice,” Jankovich said. “So we don’t get to play against any pressure defense until the game comes up.”
Houston: With the Cougars headed to the NCAA Tournament. Sampson will have taken each of the NCAA Division I schools that he has coached to the tournament — Washington State, Oklahoma, Indiana and Houston.
SMU: The Mustangs went 13-5 at Moody Coliseum during the regular season. They were 68-4 at home during the past four seasons.
Houston will end its regular season at home vs. Connecticut.
SMU will visit South Florida on Sunday.