Despite the heartbreak, Kelvin Sampson proud of what UH accomplished
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — April 3rd was supposed to be the night when the stars perfectly aligned for Houston.
The stage — NRG Stadium.
Legendary CBS play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz, a UH alum, on the call one final time.
A program that had fallen just short of winning a national championship multiple times would finally reach the pinnacle of its sport.
The hometown team was supposed to be the ones drowning in confetti and cutting down the nets.
A coach with a Hall of Fame resume would finally check the box that has eluded him in his 34 years as a collegiate basketball head coach.
April 3rd was supposed to be a magical night.
Then Miami stepped in and enforced a different type of agenda, making one of the country’s best defenses look lost and confused.
Nijel Pack couldn’t miss, hitting seven 3s on his way to a game-high 26 points.
ACC Player of the Year Isiah Wong poured on 20 points and Jordan Miller added 13.
Norchad Omier was too much for UH to handle in the paint, putting up a double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds.
Suddenly, it was all over for UH.
The team entered the NCAA Tournament as the betting favorite to win the national title season finished four wins shy of college basketball immortality.
A shockwave was sent through the Cougars’ system.
A team that had found a way to win all season, no matter the circumstances, finally met a puzzle that it couldn’t solve.
The locker room was quiet, full of dejection.
Tramon Mark could barely get the words out of his mouth, speaking in a near whisper with his hands over his face.
“I’m very shocked,” Mark said. “I didn’t expect us to lose. I didn’t expect for a team to score that many points on us … It’s tough to swallow that pill.”
Plenty of tears were shed as the realization of the season’s finality sunk in.
“I don’t think I’ve cried this much after a loss,” said Jarace Walker, who announced he would officially declare for the NBA Draft after the game. “We just got so close, so quick. We’ve been through so much. When I call these people my brothers I really mean that.”
For players like Marcus Sasser, Reggie Chaney and Walker, Friday night was their last time to take the court wearing the UH red and white.
They knew the moment was coming but didn’t plan on it happening for another week.
That’s what made the sting of Friday night so painful.
“It’s just a lot to take in,” Chaney said. “Everything just starts flowing through your mind. The first day I stepped on campus to the Final Four, the Elite Eight, this moment. Just knowing that you’re never going to put on the Houston jersey again, it’s a terrible feeling,”
After the final buzzer sounded, Kelvin Sampson took out a marker and wrote on the whiteboard in the Cougars’ locker room: 33-4.
Yes, UH fell short of its ultimate goal. But Sampson did not want his team to look past all that it had accomplished.
Ranked No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time in 40 years, a mark UH occupied three different times and seven weeks overall during the regular season.
A program record-tying 33 wins.
Regular-season champs of the American Athletic Conference for the fourth time in five years.
All those accomplishments were something Sampson wanted his team to be proud of.
“I’ll go to war with this bunch any day,” Sampson said. “(Going) 33-4 (after) losing four senior starters from last year’s team and to have the kind of year we had this year is just unbelievable.
“I’m fortunate to have coached this team, and I’m grateful for being their coach.”