SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- It's one thing to know how Houston wins games. It's another to figure out a way to beat them.
Houston's reputation since Kelvin Sampson took over in 2014 has been built on defense, toughness and aggressiveness -- at both ends of the floor. The Cougars are annually one of the best defensive teams in the country, but they're also an elite offensive rebounding unit. Opponents know how they win, but it's impossible to replicate and prepare for their intensity.
Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said as much in Wednesday's news conference, calling Houston's effort and energy defensively "almost unmatched."
Lloyd and the Wildcats knew what they were getting into at the AT&T Center on Thursday night -- but it didn't prepare them for what happened.
Houston scored the first basket of the game, never trailed and pulled away for a 72-60 win over top-seeded Arizona, advancing to the Elite Eight to face Villanova on Saturday.
"You're better served if you play them a couple times," Lloyd said after the game. "They do the things they're good at at such a high level. It's hard to get comfortable the first time around. You can try to tell your guys what's coming, but they actually have a lot better feel for it actually having experienced it."
Meanwhile, Arizona's stars struggled. Bennedict Mathurin had 15 points, but shot just 4-for-14. Azuolas Tubelis went 0-for-8 from the field and Christian Koloko went 2-for-6 after scoring 28 points in the second-round win over TCU.
Arizona, which ranked near the top of the nation in both pace and offensive efficiency, never got into a rhythm in the first half. Houston imposed its style and physicality on the Wildcats, taking them out of their comfort zone on nearly every possession.
"Victories don't come with asterisks. It's not a beauty contest," Sampson said. "I watched Arizona play. I watched them play UCLA. I watched them play Colorado. I watched the way those teams guarded them, and I knew we weren't going to guard them like those teams did. Those teams just switched them. They let them be comfortable. We were going to make them uncomfortable. It's what we do."
The Cougars took a 10-point lead less than six minutes into the game and kept Arizona at an arm's length for most of the first half. Late free throws from Koloko cut the deficit to six points going into the break.
The Wildcats came out of halftime playing much more fluid basketball offensively and were more engaged on the defensive end. A Dalen Terry 3-pointer with 13:27 left cut Houston's lead to two -- but Arizona wouldn't get any closer. Houston responded with a 10-2 run highlighted by 3-pointers from Shead and Edwards, and Arizona looked deflated.
"The key to beating Arizona is controlling the pace," Sampson said. "We're going to win a game in the 60s. But we're not going to win a game in the 80s."
Sampson said after the game he noticed Lloyd made an adjustment at halftime, utilizing slip-screens and quick rolls off ball-screens. So he instructed his players to go under ball-screens, taking the roll away.
Every time Arizona looked to make another push, Houston would respond with a big shot. After Mathurin hit a 3 to cut the Cougars' lead to three, Shead hit a pair of free throws and Edwards buried a 3. In the final minutes, Arizona was down by six with the ball -- but Mathurin turned the ball over and Edwards hit a 3 at the other end to clinch the game.
"We tried to control their runs as best we could," Edwards said. "The best thing they did was fast breaks, and they only had nine fast-break points."
Shead's emergence over the last few weeks as the consistent, confident offensive focal point of the Cougars continued on Thursday, as he refused to let Houston get out of sync. Arizona tried to speed things up at times defensively, trapping ball handlers, running two defenders at the ball in order to force a rushed shot or turnover. Shead consistently made smart decisions with the ball -- a few late turnovers notwithstanding.
In three NCAA tournament games, Shead is averaging 17.0 points and 5.3 assists while shooting 45.5% from 3-point range.
"He just had to grow with our team," Sampson said. "When Jamal started growing, like most freshmen, he's up and down ... Once he found his way, he got his wings, he started flying."
On Thursday, Houston had more second-chance points (19-13), significantly more points off turnovers (24-6) and even outshot the Wildcats (nine made 3s to Arizona's seven). It was Arizona's least efficient offensive performance since their loss to Colorado in late February and their second-worst defensive performance of the season.
"They're great defensively," Lloyd said. "They're the No. 1 or No. 2-ranked defensive team for a reason. They're a hard team to get runs on because offensively they control the tempo and they're great at offensive rebounding. It's hard to get multiple stops in a row to make those kinds of runs.
"They do what they do, and they do it at a really high level. That's why they're consistently good."
Houston is now 40 minutes from its second straight Final Four -- going against a Villanova team on Saturday that is 40 minutes from its third Final Four in the last six NCAA tournaments. Two of the best coaches in the sport, two of the most mentally tough programs in the country.
By the time tip off rolls around on Saturday evening, Jay Wright will have a good idea of what Houston does at both ends of the floor. But Arizona did, too.
"Coach doesn't win games, players do," Sampson said. "They're not afraid of anybody."