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A.J. Hoffman: With win over Cincinnati, UH may be headed for the NCAA Tournament

Rob Gray might be playing in the NCAA Tournament. UHcougars.com

Nothing is official until March 11, the day the committee looks over all the resumes and picks a field of the 68 teams they deem most deserving, but the Houston Cougars basketball team may have locked up an NCAA tournament bid on Thursday night. The Cougars beat the 5th-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats 67-62, giving them their first win over a top 5 team in the AP poll since 1996 (No. 3 Memphis). The win marked their 20th of the season, and barring a major collapse, Kelvin Sampson is poised to take the Coogs to their first tournament since 2010. 

While their resume doesn’t hold a ton of wins over other tournament teams, beating Cincinnati, who hadn’t lost since early December is a massive feather in the cap of the Cougars. As it stands today, the Cougars have five wins over teams that sit in the top 40 in RPI. Those wins are Temple (39), Providence (34), Arkansas (33), Wichita State (19) and Cincinnati (9). The bad news is, zero of those wins have come on the road. The committee wants to see that teams are capable of winning in hostile environments, and to date the best road win Houston has is a four-point win at UCF (59th in RPI). 

The good news is Houston gets a chance to get a solid road win on Sunday at Temple (39th in RPI). As important as the win tonight was, a win over Temple could be even bigger. The AAC appears to be a three-bid league, barring a conference tourney surprise. As of today, Houston would be the third team in from the conference. The closest team to catching them for that final spot is Temple, who started conference play in disastrous fashion, but have bounced back in recent weeks. Temple’s strength, at least in the eyes of the selection committee, will be non-conference wins over Auburn and Clemson, who are currently projected as 2-3 seeds. While I don’t believe a loss would be a dealbreaker, Houston winning there would put more space between them and their closest pursuer, as well as adding a strong road win to their record. 

Beyond the Temple game, Houston has 4 games left, all against teams who currently sport a losing record in the American Conference. If they take care of business in those games, and win a game or two in the conference tournament, the Cougars could end up packing their dancing shoes, and looking at potentially a 9-11 seed. That would give them a legitimate shot at the program’s first tournament win since a guy named Olajuwon led the Cougars to a 49-47 win over Olden Polynice, Rick Carlisle and the Virginia Cavaliers in the Final Four of the 1984 season.

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After rallying in the ninth inning in Game 1 to take the pivotal opener of this best-of-three ALWC series, the Astros were in the driver's seat to try and end the series on Wednesday with another win at Target Field. Here is a quick rundown of Game 2:

Final Score: Astros 3, Twins 1.

Series: HOU Wins 2-0.

Winning Pitcher: Cristian Javier.

Losing Pitcher: Cody Stashak.

Houston gets the first hit and first run in the fourth

Through the first three innings, neither team could get a hit off of Jose Berrios or Jose Urquidy, though the Twins did load the bases in the bottom of the first on two walks and an error, but Urquidy would strand the runners before getting 1-2-3 innings in the second and third.

Meanwhile, the Astros lineup was retired in order in three perfect innings by Berrios. That changed in the top of the fourth when Houston would get back-to-back two-out walks to set up the first hit of the game, an RBI-single by Kyle Tucker to give the Astros a 1-0 lead.

Dusty Baker makes another early call to the bullpen before Twins tie it up

Urquidy was able to keep the 1-0 lead by working around a two-out single in the bottom of the fourth, the first hit for the Twins. He returned in the fifth, allowing a leadoff single before a strikeout for the first out. Dusty Baker would pull another early hook, like Greinke the day prior, dipping into his bullpen early to end Urquidy's day at just 76 pitches in the fifth. His final line: 4.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 76 P.

Brooks Raley was who Baker called on to face the top of the Twins' lineup. He would walk his first batter, putting runners on first and second, get a strikeout for the second out, then allow an RBI-double to Nelson Cruz that almost scored a second, go-ahead run. Instead, the runner was out at home thanks to a terrific defensive play by Carlos Correa, bulleting the ball to Maldonado at home, who made a great tag to save the run and keep it tied 1-1.

Correa homers, Astros advance to ALDS

After Raley completed the fifth inning for Urquidy, Cristian Javier was the next reliever out to begin the bottom of the sixth. He would toss a 1-2-3 frame, sending the tie game to the seventh. In the top of the seventh, Carlos Correa broke the tie with a long, loud two-out solo home run to center-field, putting the Astros back in front 2-1.

Javier held on to the one-run lead in the bottom of the seventh by working around a leadoff walk, then returned for the eighth. He would get through it scoreless, despite allowing a one-out walk to Nelson Cruz, who would be pinch-ran for by the speedy Byron Buxton. After a strikeout for out number two, Javier would catch Buxton between first and second base in a rundown, getting the big final out of the inning.

Houston added insurance in the top of the ninth, getting two on base before an RBI-single by Kyle Tucker, his second of the day to make it 3-1. That left things up to closer Ryan Pressly, making his first appearance of the postseason. He would notch the save, advancing the Astros to the ALDS for their fourth-straight year.

Up Next: The Astros will now have a few days off to travel to the west coast before starting their ALDS with the winner of the A's / White Sox ALWC series. Game 1 of their ALDS will be on Monday, October 5th, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, with start time TBD.

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