- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2011

HOUSTON (AP) - First-year Houston coach Todd Buchanan required each of his five seniors to host a team function at least twice a month during the regular season.

They ranged from bowling to trips to the movies to nights of cooking at players’ apartments.

The Cougars (26-5) say the get-togethers helped forge a strong chemistry that led to one of the best years in school history.

Houston is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005 after winning the Conference USA regular-season title with a 16-0 record. The eighth-seeded Cougars will face No. 9 West Virginia (23-9) in Waco on Sunday.

“We’re closer this year than we’ve ever been,” said senior forward Courtney Taylor, voted Conference USA’s top player for the second consecutive year. “This year, I’ve gotten to know everyone on the team more than ever before, and I think that’s really helped all of us on the court, as well.”

Buchanan calls the 6-foot Taylor “the straw that stirs the drink” for the Cougars.

Taylor is averaging 15.9 points and 11.5 rebounds, and became the school’s career rebounder this season.

Buchanan said most opponents have opted to double-team her, and that’s created open opportunities for the rest of the lineup, mostly senior guard Brittney Scott, the Cougars’ career leader in 3-point field goals.

Houston led the league in scoring (74.5 points per game), with four of five starters averaging at least 11 points.

Courtney is certainly a focal point for every opponent, but she’s very unselfish,” Buchanan said. “She’s a great passer, and she’s great at getting everyone else involved. She doesn’t get enough credit for that because of the other things she does so well.”

Buchanan implemented a faster style when he replaced Joe Curl, who retired last March after 12 seasons due to heart-related health issues.

Buchanan worked as Curl’s top assistant and recruiting coordinator before leaving to become the head coach at Houston Baptist for five seasons.

And with all five starters back from a team that went 17-15 in 2009-10, Buchanan knew he already had a solid foundation.

“Any time you walk into a situation where you have that many seniors, who are versatile and athletic, and who meshed with my philosophy on top of that, it’s a luxury,” Buchanan said.

Another change Buchanan made was recruiting male players from pickup games at the campus recreation center to participate in his team’s practices. A handful of male players scrimmaged with the team on Thursday, and Taylor said their size and speed has benefited the Cougars physically, and also fostered confidence.

“They’re pretty legit if you ask me,” Taylor said. “You do need different bodies out there, because we know each other so well, we know each other’s moves. It helps to have players who we haven’t played before, and who are stronger and faster. When we’re scoring against them, and vibing off each other against them, it feels pretty good.”

The Cougars lost at Lamar on Jan. 4, then began their unblemished run through the league. Houston rallied from three points down in the final minute to beat UCF 71-68, then overcame a six-point deficit in the last 38 seconds of a 72-67 victory over SMU.

Taylor suggested after those two improbable wins that Houston should aim to go unbeaten the rest of the way, and Buchanan knew it was possible.

“That’s when it hit me, that maybe we were on a road to destiny here,” Buchanan said. “They know that our staff will never quit on them, and they know how intense and competitive I can be. I think they fed off that, they worked harder this year than they’ve worked in their entire careers, and I think they realized that if you put that much work into something, you’re going to bring that to every single game.”

If the Cougars can earn the program’s second NCAA tournament victory against West Virginia, a likely showdown with Houston native Brittney Griner and top-seeded Baylor (31-2) awaits.

Taylor played with Griner on an AAU team, and would relish the challenge to match up with one of the nation’s top players and teams _ and show how far the Houston program has come.

“I’m excited, I’d love to play them,” Taylor said. “They’re No. 1, they’re in our state and everyone is always looking to knock them off. Any time you can get a chance to play No. 1, it’s always a good opportunity.”

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