With UH on verge of elimination, it relied on its culture to advance
Throughout the entire 2020-21 season, a campaign marred by COVID-19 protocols, postponements, on top of unorthodox scheduling and other challenges, one word continuously came up with the Houston men’s basketball program — culture.
When UH battled through a game against South Carolina in early December without head coach Kelvin Sampson on the sidelines due to contact tracing, the Cougars overcame a second-half deficit to win with assistant coach Quannas White at the helm.
“It was a great culture win,” Sampson told reporters after that game. “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.”
When the Cougars lost sophomore guard Caleb Mills in January after he decided to transfer away, the team didn’t skip a beat. Instead, UH went on an eight-game winning streak.
Countless other occasions followed such as senior forward Fabian White returning in nine months from an ACL injury to join the team in a late-run, or freshman guard Tramon Mark lifting the Cougars past the Memphis Tigers on a half-court heave. Once again, the prominent word — culture.
Last Sunday, another moment was added to the list. After No. 10 seed Rutgers hit a 3-pointer to go up by 10 in the second half, the No. 2 seed Cougars’ season seemed like it was coming to an end.
Senior guard DeJon Jarreau had just been flattened out by a pick on an inbounds play that left him on the floor of the Unity court at Lucas Oil Stadium. He then checked out of the game, and the Scarlet Knights were on the top of momentum mountain.
Then White hit a contested hook shot over a sea of Rutgers players, and on the next possession, he fired a 3-pointer from the top of the key without hesitation to cut the deficit to seven.
“Boy, did we need that,” said Sampson after Sunday’s round of 32 game. “That was a big, big possession. They had some momentum going. A lot of time left, but they had some really positive momentum going at that time.”
Just the day before on Saturday morning, the Atascocita native had pointed out how his goal was to help his team any way possible after coming back early from his injury.
“I wasn’t even supposed to play this year,” White said. “I just want to be impactful whether it be rebounding, getting stops on the defensive end or scoring … We’re trying to advance as much as possible.”
The Cougars, however, still found themselves down nine with six minutes left. That is when Jarreau decided to play through all the pain. He had been dealing with a hip pointer injury since the opening minute of UH’s first-round game against Cleveland State.
“My hip hurt so bad. I just ain’t want to go home … There was no way I was coming out the game,” Jarreau said. “Coach Sampson kept asking me, was I all right, am I okay. Inside I wasn’t okay, but I just wanted to win so bad. I don’t want it to end that way. I love this team. We (are) so close-knitted. We a family. I just didn’t want to let these guys down.”
With Jarreau leading the team through the final minutes of Sunday’s game, UH was prepared to fight through the end of the game, regardless of what the outcome resulted in.
A Third Ward ending
The Cougars slowly clawed at the Scarlet Knights’ lead. 3-pointers from Jarreau and junior guard Quentin Grimes and free throws eventually led to the game hanging in the balance with just seconds left.
UH needed a stop, and Rutgers kept slowing the clock down as it looked to attack Jarreau and capitalize on his limited movement.
The Cougars kept the Scarlet Knights from scoring and went to the other end to tie. Jarreau took the shot to cap off the Hollywood ending, but what happened instead, ended up being a Third-Ward special.
Jarreau’s shot was short, bouncing straight into the direction of Mark, who timed his jump perfectly to meet the ball in the air and guide it back through the hoop as a swarm of Rutgers players aimed to stop him and fouled him in the process. After making the free-throw, UH went up by one, and never surrendered the lead. The improbable had become the reality.
“Man, that was a culture play, culture play, toughness play … Tramon, he a warrior,” Jarreau said. “Happy he was the one to do it. It paid off for him. He’s been through so much this season. Just to see him just come in and fly and get the offensive rebound, that’s just stuff we work on. I’m happy the stuff we work on is coming out in the games.”
After the contest, Jarreau said UH never felt like it was out of the game. He credited Sampson for keeping them believing there was a path to victory even when things seemed bleak.
After the game ended, Sampson told the TBS broadcast that the final play by Mark wasn’t about X’s or O’s, it was about the culture.
But just what is the UH culture? Perhaps it is being physical, or perhaps it is just being more poised down the stretch. The best word that could summarize it is relentlessness, but it is so much more than that.
“For us, (our players) define our culture,” Sampson said. “If you go into our film room on the back wall, it says ‘culture’. Culture can be a noun or an adjective.
“For us, it’s both. It’s who we are. It is being on time. It’s going to class. It is graduating. It’s being a good teammate. It is playing hard. It’s getting on the floor after loose balls, it’s rebounding, touching every line in practice, learning the difference in competing and playing hard.”
Somehow, UH is in the Sweet Sixteen for the second straight year, not counting 2020 when there was no tournament.
While many teams in various sports hang onto values that they hope can represent their style, for UH, its culture is a part of its identity – it is who they are.
“Not everything has to be an intangible,” Sampson said. “Culture for us, even though there’s a ton of intangible things with us, is tangible because it’s something they feel like they can touch.”
For more on The Cougar’s coverage of UH’s run in the NCAA Tournament, click here.