INDIANAPOLIS − Finally! Houston has gone back, to the Final Four. It’s no longer, “maybe next year.” Gone are the days of building for the future. It wasn’t always pretty, but that doesn’t matter. The time is now. The Cougars have arrived.
“It is not supposed to be easy,” UH head coach Kelvin Sampson told reporters after the game. “Proud of the kids, proud of the heart, proud of battling through so many things this year, whether it was injuries or transfers or a tough loss here or there. For this team to be 28-3 and going to the Final Four, this is one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve been around.”
From the opening seconds, UH came out the gates like a team locked in on advancing to the Final Four. Sophomore guard Marcus Sasser hit his first 3-pointer on the night, which was a sign of positive things to come for both him and the Cougars. In the blink of an eye, UH held an eight-point advantage that quickly ballooned up to double-digits.
Once the second half started, Oregon State tried to rally early, but UH was able to maintain a 10-point advantage until the latter end of the half when the Beavers made their furious comeback. Suddenly, after holding a 17-point edge, UH found itself in a tied ball game at 55.
The Cougars’ offense had reached a standstill, going at one point over three minutes without scoring a basket. That is when Sampson called timeout and gathered his team.
“One thing you have to remind people, young men in these situations, don’t be afraid to fail,” Sampson said. “Don’t be afraid to miss the shot. You certainly can’t be afraid to take it.”
Sampson’s message seemed to resonate with his players. Immediately off the timeout, junior guard Quentin Grimes hit a 3-pointer, and the Cougars were soon able to build a four-point cushion.
UH wasn’t able to immediately flip the switch, offensively. Instead, the biggest factor, to no surprised when it comes to these Cougars, came by crashing the boards.
The Cougars managed to track down seven offensive rebounds after the matchup was tied at 55, which led to several second-chance opportunities that ultimately sealed the win for UH.
Once the final buzzer sounded, it was pandemonium.
The UH players on the bench rushed over onto the court to embrace each other. Kelvin Sampson turned around and hugged his son, lead assistant Kellen Sampson, and the Cougars’ fans that were at Lucas Oil Stadium jumped up and down in the stands.
For senior guard DeJon Jarreau, he was finally able to calm down a bit.
“Just the relief of all the hard work we’ve put in to get to this point and just being counted out and doubted,” Jarreau said. “Just to kind of prove to the world that we belong here. They tried to say about us playing double seeds, but those double seeds also had to beat a single seed to get to this point. I’m just very grateful.”
For UH’s head coach, this moment was sweet from a personal standpoint as it validated everything he set out to do seven years ago when joined the Cougars.
But he was even happier for his players. For him, it meant more that this moment will be forever engrained in the minds of his student-athletes.
“It’s all about the players. It’s all about them,” Sampson said. “This memory will last them a lifetime. They’ll tell their grandchildren about this. Their mothers and fathers, their families and friends were watching them and experiencing it from afar. But these guys put in the work. They all had their story. They’ve all had to battle through adversity to come together as a team.”
Now, the Cougars are two wins away from accomplishing what not even the Phi Slama Jama team could do in the 1980s: win a national championship.
The enthusiasm for this program is sky-high right now. In the midst of it all, Jarreau, who was named the Midwest Region’s Most Outstanding Player, sat talking to reporters after the contest a bit stunned. It hadn’t sunk in yet, he said. The Cougars are the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region Champions.
“I’m happy to bring that excitement back to Houston and continue what the Phi Slama Jama did and bring the excitement back to Houston,” Jarreau said. “I love everything about it. I love the University of Houston. I love my coaches. I love my teammates. And we’re here. The emotion hasn’t even set in yet.”
For more on The Cougar’s coverage of UH’s run in the NCAA Tournament, click here.