Men's Basketball Sports

Injuries dash Cougars’ title hopes once again

Houston couldn’t overcome any more injuries in its Sweet 16 loss to Duke. | Anh Le/The Cougar

The consequences of injury were everywhere in the Cougars’ locker room.

Senior guard Jamal Shead, whose sprained ankle proved UH’s undoing at the hands of Duke earlier that night, limped to embrace an inconsolable Cedric Lath, the backup center who likely wouldn’t have played at all in the game had it not been for a season-ending foot injury to freshman big man JoJo Tugler less than a month ago.

Sophomore guard Terrance Arceneaux, whose year was cut short with an Achilles tear in December, was silently leaning over the side of his locker. Could he have helped this team get over the hump in a 3-point loss that came down to the final possession?

Junior guard Ramon Walker Jr. never quit. He returned to the rotation this year after a tumultuous 2022-23 season saw him sit out the final three months due to mental health. He then returned from a meniscus tear in just a month to play in the tournament and made plays to keep UH’s hopes alive against the Blue Devils.

I didn’t quit,” Walker said. “When things got hard, I didn’t quit. That’s the thing I’m most proud of.”

Despite all of that, Walker was teary-eyed, as devastated as the rest of his teammates.

Redshirt senior forward J’Wan Roberts sat motionless in his locker, his jersey draped over his head. He had battled through a litany of injuries all year — nagging knee troubles, stitches in his right hand, a shin contusion — to get the Cougars to this point. He had fought valiantly in Shead’s absence to keep UH within arm’s reach.

But it wasn’t enough. Despite battling through it all to become Big 12 champions and a 1-seed, the Cougars just couldn’t overcome another injury, not to its First Team All-American point guard.

“It’s frustrating,” said senior guard Ryan Elvin. “Because this group really was special. I think we had a chance.”

It was even more frustrating for the team’s veterans, such as Elvin, because this wasn’t the first time UH’s NCAA title hopes were wrecked by injuries.

Season-ending surgeries to star guards Tramon Mark and Marcus Sasser in December of the 2021-22 season didn’t stop Houston from reaching the Elite Eight, but the severely shorthanded team ran out of gas against Villanova.

Last season, after climbing atop the AP Poll for the first time in nearly 40 years, Sasser, the Cougars’ All-American shooting guard and Jerry West Award winner, injured his groin during the AAC Tournament. He returned in time for the NCAA Tournament but reaggravated the injury in the Sweet 16 against Miami, while a hobbled Shead and freshman forward Jarace Walker struggled to play up to their normal standard as UH fell yet again.

It was eerily similar to this year. The All-American superstar goes out in the Sweet 16, while the walking wounded still on the court just couldn’t make up for it. Another supremely frustrating end to another equally promising year.

“It‘s just bad luck,” said guard Emanuel Sharp, whose game-tying three-pointer bounced off the front rim as time expired. “Last year with Mark and Jamal hurting. This year; a lot of guys hurting. It just sucks because we know how hard we work every day. We come out and compete every night. It just sucks.”

It hurt in ’22, it hurt in ’23 but this year’s loss particularly stung for the Cougars. Throughout the year, and again after Friday’s loss, players and coaches alike have emphasized just how close-knit this team had become.

They had been through it all together. They struggled through the famously grueling UH summer workouts in June and July together, then traveled to Australia for two weeks on an exhibition tour. They grieved the untimely death of their beloved former teammate Reggie Chaney together. They battled through numerous injuries and stayed together to conquer their gauntlet of a Big 12 schedule and become conference champs in their first year. They survived a Texas A&M comeback in the Round of 32 with four starters having fouled out to pull out an emotional win in overtime.

Even senior guard L.J. Cryer, who climbed the NCAA mountaintop with Baylor in 2021 before transferring to Houston last offseason, said this team was easily the favorite he’s ever been a part of.

“I’ve been a part of teams that care and I’ve been a part of teams that don’t get reactions out of a locker room like this,” Cryer said. “But this team is special. We all care about one another. The love is real.”

And now it was all over. No more practices. No more scouting reports. No more games.

“The team has been through so much together; so much adversity throughout the year,” Elvin said. “I’ve been on a lot of close-knit teams, but this was probably the closest I’ve ever been on. It sucks now that it’s over”

Head coach Kelvin Sampson has dealt with these kinds of losses before in his four decades of coaching, but it all still hurts.

He knows that injuries don’t make exceptions. After all, only one team each year gets to go home truly happy. One moment, you’re leading Duke and in control in the first half. The next, you’re scratching and clawing to stay in the game without your star before a magical season ends unceremoniously.

He knows that everyone on this year’s team could theoretically return for at least one more season, but Shead will very likely enter the NBA Draft to pursue his dream, and seniors like Cryer and Roberts’ futures are unknown.

He knows that players will leave and new ones will come in, just as they do every year. But even if one of Sampson’s future teams finally does it and wins an NCAA title, he will never get to spend his days coaching this particular group again. The one that went through so much yet achieved so much.

My disappointment came not just in losing this game,” Sampson said. “But in not being able to coach this team anymore. I loved coaching this team.”

After the game, Sampson said he didn’t give his team a speech. A speech wouldn’t do any good now. He had built this Houston program to be one of the toughest and most successful in the nation, and what they had done this season was another large feather in their cap. But as his team sat in disbelief and sorrow, he knew none of that would make it hurt any less.

He simply told his players how proud he was and how much he loved them. He left them with a statement that rings true for 350 of the 351 NCAA Division-I basketball programs: “It just wasn’t our time.” Maybe one day, it will be, but just not today.

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