No. 1 Houston welcomed a weekend off in the middle of the season.

The short-handed Cougars defeated visiting South Florida 83-77 on Wednesday, their third game in seven days. Then they had five days without a game, but will be back in action on Tuesday night when they meet with Tulane in New Orleans.

“We got a little break here, so hopefully we can get some bodies back, get healthy, heal the wounded, feed the sick and do all that stuff and move on to the next one,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “This has been a tough stretch. … We’ve got so many guys out.”

The Cougars (17-1, 5-0 American Athletic Conference) played without second-leading scorer Jarace Walker (10.4 points per game) and key reserve Ramon Walker Jr. (15.1 minutes per game) against South Florida because of a variety of ailments.

Sampson is hoping the Cougars are at full strength or close to it against Tulane.

Leading scorer Marcus Sasser led the way against the Bulls by scoring a career-high 31 points, and fellow guard Jamal Shead added 20.

The Cougars allowed a season high in points to USF and trailed 53-48 with 13:40 left before going on a 20-4 run to take control.

“There is no asterisk besides a win,” Sampson said. “They are wins. I was proud of our team for hanging in there on a night where we didn’t have a whole lot going for us.

“That game was a thing of beauty. Get the win, go home, get some rest and get ready for the next one.”

The next one will determine first place in the American. While the Cougars have won eight games in a row, the Green Wave (12-5, 5-1) have won five straight after defeating UCF 77-69 on Saturday.

“This is one of the biggest games that we’ve played,” fourth-year coach Ron Hunter said of the victory against the Knights. “This is a team people think should be in the NCAA tournament. We had to have this win.”

Tulane took the lead for good barely a minute into the game and held a 15-point advantage at halftime. But UCF got within three points in the final minutes before the Green Wave put it away at the foul line.

Tulane held the team with the highest 3-point percentage in the American to 1-of-16 shooting on 3-pointers in the first half. UCF now ranks second in the conference after being hampered by the Green Wave.

The stifling defensive effort came three days after the Green Wave scored 63 points in the second half of a victory against SMU.

“We’ve been scoring a lot of points, but we won today because of our defense,” Hunter said. “That’s a sign of a good team when we can win offensively or defensively. We played hard. We played great. We were all over the place in the first half.

“We used a lot of energy early. In the second half we were almost a step behind, but when you play good teams, they make a run. Veteran teams find a way to win.”

–Field Level Media