HONOLULU (AP) — Houston coach Kelvin Sampson has seen steady improvement from his team over the first few months of the season. The Cougars took another big step in the right direction Wednesday.
Fabian White Jr. and Caleb Mills scored 19 points each to help Houston rally to a 75-71 win over No. 21 Washington in the title game of the Diamond Head Classic.
The Cougars (10-3) trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half, but outscored the Huskies (10-3) 44-35 after halftime to win their fourth straight.
“We just kept chipping and chipping and chipping, but that’s a really good team,” Sampson said of Washington, which had won eight of its previous nine. “Early in the game they were hitting everything — easy shots, hard shots, medium shots — they were running it down our throat.”
White shot 7 of 13 from the field and hit all five of his free throws to finish with a career-high in points scored and earn the tournament’s most outstanding player honors.
Mills hit three of his team’s eight 3-pointers.
“I was really proud of our young guys. Caleb Mills is a freshman, Marcus Sasser is a freshman, Quentin Grimes is a sophomore and Fabian White is a junior — we only have one senior,” Sampson said.
He added, “Earlier in the year you could tell we were trying to figure out who we were, just searching for an identity, but we hung in there and kept working and this is the key to our program: today is December 25th. We’re a lot better on December 25th than we were on November 25th and we were a lot better on November 25th than we were on October 25th, but I do believe this, I think we’re going to be a lot better January 25th.”
Houston shot 17 of 18 (94.4 percent) as a team from the foul line.
Washington took a 35-21 lead with 6:01 left until halftime on Isaiah Stewart’s free throw, but Houston closed out the first half with a 10-1 run to get within 36-31 at the break.
Stewart finished with 25 points while Nahziah Carter added 15. Quade Green had 11 points and seven assists and Jaden McDaniels added 10 points in the loss.
Washington committed 15 turnovers to seven for Houston. There were five ties and 10 lead changes.
BIG PICTURE: Houston saw leading scorer Grimes held to 14 points by the Huskies, but the sophomore guard still managed six assists and five rebounds. Grimes entered the game averaging 22 points in the Cougars’ first two games of the tournament and 15.3 on the season. ... Washington saw its three-game streak come to an end. The Huskies were seeking their ninth win in 10 games.
POLL IMPLICATIONS: The loss will likely drop the Huskies a few spots, while the Cougars can expect to grab some votes when poll is released Monday.
FRESHMAN STANDOUT: Stewart, a preseason All-Pac-12 selection and likely lottery pick in June’s NBA Draft, took just three shots in the first half and had seven points at the break. He went on to score 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field after halftime. He made nine of 10 from the free-throw line and recorded three of Washington’s six blocks.
“Washington is not an easy team to guard because of Stewart and they played really, really well offensively,” Sampson said. “Our defense rebounded, we played to our identity, our culture kicked in.”
Stewart entered the game averaging a team-high 18.8 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. He was coming off of four consecutive double-double outings.
“He’s an elite player, no getting around that, and other guys on our team gotta step up,” Washington coach Mike Hopkins said. “We got some good opportunities, we missed some easy shots and at the end there was some hustle plays, second-chance baskets, full clocks, dribble-penetration (by Houston) and you can’t allow that to happen.”
TIP-INS It was the first meeting between the teams since Dec. 24, 2004, which Washington won by a score of 110-63. … The Huskies had won three of the last four times against the Cougars and still lead the all-time series 5-3. … Houston picked up its first win in the series since Dec. 20, 2003, when it came away with a 79-64 home win over Washington.
Houston: Will try to make it five straight wins when it hosts UCF to open its American Athletic Conference schedule on Jan. 3.
Washington: Will start Pac-12 play when it hosts UCLA on Jan. 2 and USC on Jan. 5.