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No. 21 Houston plays for AAC title hopes at UConn

No. 21 Houston and UConn meet Thursday night at Storrs, Conn., with important agendas.

The Cougars (22-7, 12-4 American Athletic Conference) are challenging for the regular-season conference championship with two games remaining this week. Tulsa is tied with Houston atop the standings, with Cincinnati still in contention at 12-5 in the conference.

"We got a big game coming up Thursday and I think we are more focused on the process," Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. "We've won nothing ... If you start getting ahead of yourself, you're losing sight of why we start in June and (why) our kids work so hard."

The game will be the last time UConn will host Houston as a member of the AAC. The Huskies will rejoin the Big East on July 1 for the first time since the 2012-13 season.

"They are playing absolutely their best basketball of the season right now," said Sampson, noting that UConn (17-12, 8-8) has won six of its last eight games. "This will be the hardest road game we've probably had all year long."

UConn senior guard Christian Vital will be honored during Senior Night activities. Vital leads the Huskies in three different categories -- 15.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game.

Vital has 1,681 career points, good for 11th in program history. He is a candidate for AAC Player of the Year, which will be solidified if he leads an upset over Houston.

Vital is coming off a season-high 27 points to lead UConn over East Carolina, 84-63, last weekend.

"You don't let anyone put a cap on your abilities and what you can do," Vital said.

The Huskies will be without freshman forward Akok Akok, who led the team with 2.6 blocks per game. He suffered a torn Achilles injury on Feb. 16 against the Tigers.

Houston guards Nate Hinton, Caleb Mills and DeJon Jarreau have combined to account for 45 percent of the team's scoring this season and have scored 47 percent of all Cougars points over the last five games.

Marcus Sasser, the reigning ACC freshman of the week, has attempted the most 3-pointers for the Cougars (57 of 152 for 37.5 percent). He has struggled with turnovers (29 in comparison to 43 assists) but he feels he has improved.

"All my reads and all my decisions are better," said Sasser. "I'm becoming a point guard and a better leader."

Sasser went scoreless in 28 minutes in Houston's 63-59 over UConn in the first meeting at Houston on Jan. 23. Jarreau had 18 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists and Mills scored 20 points.

Vital scored 14 points for UConn, and Isaiah Whaley added 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Huskies. UConn shot only 36.4 percent, including 4 of 16 from 3-point range, and it struggled at the free-throw line, making 15 of 23.

"We played so hard," UConn coach Dan Hurley said after that loss. "We are developing an identity of grittiness and resilience and defensive mentality. A team toughness that right now is the one thing we can control."

UConn has lost four straight games to ranked opponents. The Huskies' last win against a ranked opponent was against then-No. 15 Florida, 62-59, on Nov. 17, 2019.

--Field Level Media

Updated March 4, 2020

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