Coronavirus Men's Basketball Sports

‘It just seems like a punch to the gut’: The Cougars’ 180-degree trip from Fort Worth back to Houston as AAC cancels tournament

Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson’s first words to the media after getting off the team bus were, “I really don’t know how to react to it.”| Kathryn Lenihan/The Cougar

Head coach Kelvin Sampson’s first words to the media after getting off the team bus were, “I really don’t know how to react to it.” | Kathryn Lenihan/The Cougar

The Houston men’s basketball team was traveling up I-45, on its way to Fort Worth to compete in the American Athletic Conference Championship Tournament on Thursday morning, when head coach Kelvin Sampson had a feeling of what was about to come.

Despite being about two and a half hours away from arriving in Fort Worth, the doubts that the tournament was even going to be played were prominent on the team bus and eventually became reality due to the new coronavirus concerns.

“I knew it was coming,” said Sampson, who by 8:40 a.m. had already been in calls with conference officials about the status of the AAC Tournament. “I was just waiting for the callback, but at that point (the other conferences) had not canceled.”

The different conference personnel that rang Sampson’s phone, asked his opinion on a variety of different scenarios.

Meanwhile, towards the back of the bus, many of the players were taking a nap.

“I think we were all still hoping that we could still play,” Sampson said. “I think it was at about 10:30 a.m. when I got the final word that it was going to get canceled … I just walked back and had to wake everybody up first.”

The reaction from the student-athletes after learning that there were not going to be any games was summed up to one word by the head coach — bewilderment.

The team had just gone through a passionate practice less than 24 hours ago to prepare for the gauntlet they would have to go through to win the AAC postseason championship.

“Our guys prepared to go win this tournament,” Sampson said. “I know (for) these kids, that was their mindset, but by the time I got back and got that around, I just looked at their faces and you could tell it was just confusing.”

The bus carrying the UH players and staff promptly made a U-turn and headed back to campus.

Once back in front of the Guy V. Lewis Development facility, Sampson, now surrounded by a group of reporters, still seemed stunned at what had just happened.

The head coach said he felt bad for his kids and pointed out senior center Chris Harris Jr., who had played the final game of his collegiate career on Sunday against Memphis without even realizing it.

The head coach also mentioned his standout freshmen guards Caleb Mills and Marcus Sasser, who have never experienced a postseason tournament and will now have to wait an extra season.

“I just feel bad for everybody that loves this time of year in college basketball,” Sampson said. “This is what family vacations are made of. It’s what heroes are made out of. It’s what our sports are made out of. There’s 350-odd Division-I schools and the most important day is supposed to be Sunday. Selection Sunday.

“It is our Super Bowl.”

The Cougars’ season, which has now come to an abrupt end, began back on Nov. 9 in an exhibition game against Angelo State. The team began working for the season way before that date back in the summer of 2019.

From conditioning workouts in the Houston summer heat to energized, emotionally-packed summer scrimmages, all that work now stops with no definitive closure.

“My first reaction is just thinking about all the hard work and long days, the long nights that we’ve all put together as a team,” sophomore guard Nate Hinton said. “The struggles we had endured. We were just picking up momentum, and for all of us to not have this experience this year, it just seems like a punch to the gut.”

For Sampson, the cancellations of sporting events across the country teach a simple message.

“I think the biggest lesson is don’t take anything for granted,” he said.

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