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Saturday, September 23, 2023

Men's Basketball

For UH’s Kelvin Sampson, a rare outside look at the program he’s built

Kelvin Sampson speaks to reporters after a win against Tulane during the 2019-20 season at Fertitta Center. | Mikol Kindle Jr./The Cougar

Kelvin Sampson speaks to reporters after a win against Tulane during the 2019-20 season at Fertitta Center. | Mikol Kindle Jr./The Cougar

Kelvin Sampson went through plenty of emotions on Saturday evening as he watched his UH men’s basketball team take on South Carolina from his home.

Despite not being at Fertitta Center due to contact tracing protocols after his son and top assistant, Kellen, tested positive for COVID-19, he was still as invested in the game as if he were walking on the sidelines in his blue, buttoned-up shirt and red tie.

Sampson struggled to remain calm throughout the game. He called his son multiple times throughout the contest, estimating he hung up on him about thirty times as the evening progressed. He even snapped at his wife, Karen, and was routinely taking trips outdoors to get some fresh air.

For the head coach, not being with his team was a tough pill to swallow.

“I’ve never missed a game,” he said in a Zoom video call with reporters. “It was miserable. I’d rather wrestle a porcupine than have to do that again.”

While the UH head coach battled through his game day emotions, his team fought through adversity of its own. The Cougars were missing their dynamic duo of sophomore guards Caleb Mills and Marcus Sasser, who were sidelined with ankle injuries.

The team struggled in the first half, giving up 35 first-half points to the Gamecocks, which was the first time a UH opponent had cracked 20 points before halftime this season. UH also struggled to shoot the ball in that opening period. Houston was 10 of 30 from the field at the break.

The Cougars were even uncharacteristically out-rebounded 24-20 in the first half.

At halftime, acting head coach Quannas White rallied UH in the locker room. Sampson, although at home, said he managed to get his thoughts to the team.

After an early hiccup in transition defense by the Cougars to start the second half, White called a quick timeout. Following that break, the team found its composure and eventually took the edge in the scoreboard.

Junior guard Quentin Grimes was instrumental in UH’s strong second-half performance as he scored 19 points in the final 20 minutes. He did a lot of damage from the free-throw line as he got there 13 times, scoring 12.

“I thought Quentin Grimes had a great second half,” White said. “I thought he showed great toughness along with Justin Gorham, Brison Gresham and DeJon Jarreau.”

In addition to the veterans, a pair of freshman guards — Tramon Mark and Jamal Shead — also made big contributions in the second half. Mark scored 11 of his points in that period, six of which also came from the free-throw line. Shead added another seven points.

“It speaks to the character of our young guys,” White said. “For those guys to be receptive, and follow those guys that are leading them. As freshmen, it’s a testament to our program.”

Following the Cougars’ victory over the Gamecocks, a word often thrown around the program stood out — culture.

Despite missing both Sampsons, its leading scorer in Sasser, and Mills, UH fully applied the next man up mentality.

Back in his home, the UH head coach was able to take it all in, and while he is not looking forward to having to do it again on Wednesday, against South Carolina, Sampson was able to see how much his unit was able to overcome.

“I was proud of our team,” Sampson said. “I was proud of Coach Quannas and the staff. I was proud of our guys for stepping up. In second half, especially.”

“It was a great culture win,” he added. “We built a great culture, and when I talked to the guys before the game, I said, ‘You don’t have to win the game, but our culture does.’ I thought our second half was a great indicator of that.”

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