PITTSBURGH — Taze Moore scored 21 points, Jamal Shead had 18 and Houston, a Final Four team last season, advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament with a 68-53 win Sunday over Illinois, ousted in the opening weekend for the second year in a row.
The fifth-seeded Cougars (31-5), who lost their two best players to season-ending injuries, are headed home to Texas for the next round, which will be in San Antonio, about a three-hour drive from Houston.
Kyler Edwards scored 15 points for Houston, a team often overlooked but making major noise again this March.
With Houston’s fans chanting “Sweet 16, Sweet 16” in the final seconds, Edwards dropped one last three-pointer and seconds later lifted Moore, another of Houston’s transfers, off the floor.
For Illinois, it’s another year of deep disappointment. The fourth-seeded Fighting Illini (23-10) were determined to go further after being bumped by Loyola Chicago last year but couldn’t get past the second round again.
All-American center Kofi Cockburn did his part, scoring 19 in 38 minutes to lead Illinois. The big man spurned the NBA last year for a shot at some tournament redemption, only to come up short in what was probably his last college game.
Down by 12 in the first half, Illinois battled back and was within 56-49 after Alfonso Plummer’s four-point play.
But after Shead scored on a floater, Houston’s Fabian White Jr. made the play of the game by racing into the backcourt and swatting the ball before it went out of bounds with his left hand to Moore for a layup.
It has been that kind of season for the Cougars, who lost Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark — two mainstays from last year’s semifinal team — but are one of 16 teams still alive for a national title,