Memphis has played its share of close games this season and it finally caught up to the 21st-ranked Tigers on Thursday night.
Danuel House scored 19 points, including an important 3-pointer down the stretch, and Houston closed with a decisive surge to beat Memphis 77-68.
Michael Dixon Jr. scored 19 points and Shaq Goodwin had 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Tigers (21-7, 10-5 American Athletic Conference). Austin Nichols, in foul trouble throughout the game, added 12 points.
Dixon called it a horrible loss and said it stung.
"Ultimately, I don't think we played any defense," he said. "We were horrible on the defensive end as a team. That decided the game. They were hitting wide-open shots and made a lot of shots. They are a good shooting team. Totally different team at home than on the road and that decided the game."
The Tigers shot just under 47 percent but only 3 of 13 from 3-point range and committed 14 turnovers that led to 21 Houston points.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner called out senior guards Chris Crawford, Joe Jackson and Geron Johnson, who combined for 15 points and eight turnovers.
"I said all along it would be hard to win games when three of our four guards played like they did," Pastner said. "Chris and Joe have not played well the last week and a half. I don't know what's up with them, but they have to snap out of it."
TaShawn Thomas added 16 points and seven rebounds for the Cougars, who finished on a 14-5 run to win their second consecutive game. Jherrod Stiggers chipped in with 14 points and L.J. Rose had seven points, seven rebounds and 10 assists for Houston (14-14, 6-9).
The Cougars improved to 14-0 when leading with 5 minutes left. They shot 43 percent from the floor, including 8 of 21 on 3-pointers.
"Houston hit some big 3s," Pastner said. "We had some breakdowns defensively that bit us in the butt."
With the game tied at 63 with 3:53 remaining, Rose started the Cougars on their game-ending run with two free throws. House hit a 3-pointer before Dixon cut the lead to three with a layup with 1:33 remaining, but that was as close as Memphis got the rest of the way.
"We had many a breakdown," Dixon said. "We didn't do a good job of talking. That's something we take a lot of pride in. That's something we have done pretty well for a greater part of the season. For some reason, whatever it may be, we didn't do that today, and that decided the game."
The Cougars hit eight of 10 free throws down the stretch in earning their second victory over a ranked opponent for the first time since the 2009-10 season. Houston beat then-No. 17 Connecticut on Dec. 31.
With Louisville visiting Memphis on Saturday and games against Cincinnati and Southern Methodist to follow, Pastner said the Tigers cannot dwell on the loss.
"There is so much to play for, so be excited, thankful and enthused," Pastner said. "I said, 'Hey, we have to get ready for Louisville Saturday.' We have three great opportunities for us starting with Louisville on Saturday."
Houston opened the second half with four straight points to extend its lead to 40-33 on two free throws by Rose with 18:57 left, but Memphis answered with a 15-4 run to grab a 50-46 lead on Dixon's 3-pointer with 12:47 remaining. Dixon had eight points in the spurt.
Houston answered with a 9-0 surge to take a 55-50 lead on a second straight 3-pointer by Stiggers with 11 minutes remaining, but the Tigers responded again with six consecutive points to grab a one-point lead with 9:46 left on Nick King's jumper.
In a back-and-forth first half, there were seven lead changes and five ties.
Memphis held four-point leads several times, the last time coming with 5:57 left in the first half on Goodwin's dunk, but Houston ended the half on an 11-4 spurt and scored the last six points to take a 36-33 lead at the break on House's four-point play.
Thomas came in needing five rebounds to become the seventh player in Houston history with more than 1,300 points and 800 rebounds in his career, joining Elvin Hayes, Dwight Davis, Greg Anderson, Rickie Winslow, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon.