The Cougars and Utes will meet in the second semifinal on Friday in Charleston, S.C.
"You like learning lessons by winning," Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said after his team's first-round game. "You're going to learn lessons whether you win or lose, you might as well win."
The two teams won their Thursday games in different manners.
Houston's defense was solid in a 65-49 triumph against Towson. Utah was in a tussle before a late rally gave the Utes a 77-70 win over Wake Forest.
Houston (4-0), in its first game away from home, had control of its game in large part because Towson couldn't get untracked offensively.
The Cougars will address some spotty stretches on offense that seemed to gain Sampson's attention.
"It's still so early in the season, I don't think anybody is looking at their teams as finished products," Sampson said. "We're all just searching -- trying to figure out how to fix this, how to fix that."
The good thing for the Cougars was that they should be fresh for the semifinal.
LJ Cryer's team-leading 18 points against Towson came in 27 minutes -- and he logged the most playing time of anyone on the team. Four reserves were on the court for more than 15 minutes, so the playing time was spread out, something that Sampson indicated was part of the plan as he learns more about his squad.
"We've got some spots where we're just rotating guys in," Sampson said. "It's going to take them awhile to get comfortable."
Both Houston and Utah (3-0) used big scoring runs to shape their first-round games.
The Cougars went on a 13-1 run in the first half to build a comfortable edge against Towson. Utah wanted until down the stretch against Wake Forest to turn it on, benefiting from an 11-0 run to go up 65-60.
The Utes received a huge boost from senior center Branden Carlson's career-high 31 points, with 20 of those points in the second half. It was the first time that a Utah player has reached 30 points in a game under third-year coach Craig Smith.
"We had a really hard time keeping Branden Carlson under control," Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes said. "He is a really good player, and we were worried about him. Carlson did a lot of damage inside and out."
The Utes overcame a rough first half, as they trailed 41-31 at the break.
"I was just really proud of our guys, just the way the game was played, the way it kind of played out," Smith said. "There just wasn't a lot going right for us in that first half."
Utah will savor the second half.
"We scored 46 in the second half," Smith said. "I mean, there were games over the last two years it was hard to get 46 for the game."
The Cougars and Utes have met only once previously, with Houston prevailing 82-57 in a December 1982 game in Tokyo.
The other semifinal features St. John's and Dayton. The tournament has a break Saturday, so the championship game and third-place game will be held Sunday.
--Field Level Media
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