December 23rd: a Houston Cougars basketball nightmare that was pivotal to the team’s Elite Eight run a season ago

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Justin Rex/AP/Shutterstock (12657064ag) Houston guard Marcus Sasser (0) drives the ball against Texas State guard Shelby Adams (4) and guard Mason Harrell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, in Houston Texas St Basketball, Houston, United States – 22 Dec 2021

December 23rd: a Houston Cougars basketball nightmare that was pivotal to the team’s Elite Eight run a season ago

Dec. 23, 2021 will be a day remembered for its infamy within the Houston Cougars basketball program.

Nearing the anniversary of the 48-hour period that completely changed the dynamic of the 2021-22 Houston Cougars, some of those involved reflected on the crucial window that shaped, and in some ways, propelled the team into an Elite Eight run.

Just 24 hours before, on the morning of Dec. 22, 2021, guard Tramon Mark underwent successful surgery on his left shoulder to repair a torn labrum he had suffered back in the 2020-21 season, the year the Cougars made the Final Four.

“The night before, at film, it would have been the night of the 21st; Tramon had to be at the hospital at 6 o’clock in the morning of the 22nd,” Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson said. “So, we did a team prayer. Part of our film study that night was Tramon being there with the team, and we just got in a circle and held hands.

“K. C. Beard [the team’s special assistant to the head coach] led us in prayer. When it was done, we said the Lord’s prayer, and then we had a silent moment praying for Tramon to have a successful surgery and a successful recovery.”

Mark’s injury had been a lingering issue that constantly plagued him during the early portions of the 2021-22 season.

Despite constant rehab on his shoulder, the Dickinson native could never turn the corner on the injury. After taking a big hit during Houston’s game at Alabama, he had to shut down for the season, said John Houston, the team’s associate athletic director for sports medicine.

With Mark’s surgery fresh on the team’s mind, Houston had one nonconference game left on its schedule, a battle against Texas State on the night of Dec. 22, 2021.

Texas State Tussle

Knowing the team would be without Mark for the remainder of the year, Sampson believed his roster would have Jamal Shead as its point guard, Marcus Sasser, and Kyler Edwards as its other two guards, and Fabian White and Josh Carlton as its big men in the starting lineup.

The Cougars would then bring Taze Moore and Ramon Walker as the two guards off the bench, and Reggie Chaney and J’Wan Roberts would be the additional big men upfront.

“I could tell our team was starting to come together. It’s usually this time of year when our team starts looking like we want them to look like,” Sampson stated.

Houston played against Texas State and throttled the Bobcats in an 80-47 victory. However, the Cougars were wounded beyond what they could have ever imagined.

Edwards left the game at the 10-minute mark in the second half and did not return. He had just suffered a badly sprained ankle that required him to receive an X-ray and undergo magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

Houston did not have Moore against Texas State because he was battling COVID-19, which later spread among the program. Lastly, the team had just gotten Walker back after he underwent surgery in November to reattach a tendon in his hand that did not allow him to touch a basketball for over a month.

At the same time, unknown to everyone within the program, they had also just seen Sasser play his final minutes for the remainder of the season.

“I was excited after the game cause the things we had been working on was kind of taking hold,” Sampson said. “I had no idea Marcus had broken his foot.”

A nagging pain

After the Texas State game, Sasser’s left foot was giving the guard severe discomfort. It hurt him really bad; he told Gallery Sports.

The Dallas native had battled through a series of injuries over the course of the previous 10 days, which began with a sprained toe on his right foot against Alabama and then a rolled ankle a few days later against Oklahoma State, Houston said.

However, the pain he felt following the win against Texas State was different and new. On Dec. 23, 2021, the Cougars ran X-rays and MRIs on both Edwards and Sasser at the Memorial Hermann in the Texas Medical Center.

Edwards’ images showed he had a typical grade one/two ankle sprain, Houston said. Sasser’s images, on the other hand, showed he had a fracture on the fifth metatarsal in his left foot. The fifth metatarsal is the long bone on the outside of a foot that connects to the small toe, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Sasser’s injury was an incomplete fracture, but it was going to progress, Houston said. The Cougars made the decision that Sasser needed to have surgery, which meant putting a screw in his foot to allow the fracture to heal. As a result, Sasser was going to be shut down for the rest of the season.

“The wheels at that point just felt like they were coming off,” Houston lamented. “We had just [lost] T-Mark, so T-Mark is done for the year. Now we’ve lost Marcus, and then Kyler had sprained his ankle, and later that afternoon, Josh Carlton calls me [and says], ‘I think I got COVID.’”

A Christmas Horror Story

Around the same time on Dec. 23, Sampson was at his house. He was sitting in his backyard, and assistant coach Quannas White had just stopped by to drop off a Christmas gift.

At that moment, the head coach received a phone call. It was from Houston.

“It was a tough call,” Houston said.

He broke the news to the head coach that the Cougars were going to be without their lead guard for the remainder of the season.

“My first reaction had nothing to do with the team,” Sampson remarked. “Nothing. I have a responsibility to develop these kids, and I know how hard they work when nobody else sees them.”

After Sampson got off the phone with Houston, he told White. After calming White down from the shock of the news, the head coach then called Sasser and also spoke with his father.

“I was really just trying to turn it into a positive,” Sasser said. “[I] really couldn’t do nothing about it but heal.”

After the head coach spoke with the Sassers, he called his son — Kellen Sampson.

Kelvin said that Kellen was on his way up to College Station to see Santa Claus with his wife, Tonya, and their children, Maisy and Kylen.

When Kellen answered the phone, his father asked him a question.

“OK hoss, what is the worst possible news that I could give you right now as far as the team is concerned?” Kelvin asked.

Kellen’s heart dropped.

“Oh God, who got hurt,” Kellen responded to his father.

“Marcus broke his foot. He is out for the year,” Kelvin told him.

Kellen was stunned. He couldn’t believe it. Sasser had just played, and he hadn’t gotten pulled out of the game with an injury or anything that could have prepared the team for Sasser to miss significant time.

“I couldn’t fathom it,” Kellen told Gallery Sports. “I couldn’t believe the words. I kept waiting for there to be a different outcome, and you know, it was just like the fifth major blow in a short, short window there.”

On top of Sasser’s injury, Houston was thrown one more obstacle. A COVID-19 outbreak.

The Cougars were supposed to play on Dec. 28 against Cincinnati. They had to postpone it because they had a total of 10 people, including managers, personnel, and players dealing with the coronavirus.

“Last year at Christmas, it was miserable,” Houston stated.

Solving the Rubik’s Cube

The Cougars had a 12-day window where they did not play any games after the Texas State outing. Kelvin used Dec. 23, Dec. 24, and Dec. 25 to process the series of events that had happened and, at the same time, figure out a plan going forward.

“Obviously, your mind starts going into overdrive on how we are going to have to change some things,” Kelvin said. “From a strategy standpoint, we got to just move some things around. It is like a Rubik’s Cube; you are constantly trying to get everything to align.”

The team got together on Christmas night, a tradition they will do again this season, and they all knew about Sasser’s injury, Kelvin said.

Most of the team’s players were still in Houston, Kelvin said. Edwards spent his Christmas break in the training room trying to heal his ankle. Sasser did not have surgery on his foot until after Christmas. His surgery took place on Dec. 30, Sasser said.

When the Cougars finally got to the practice court, the head coach started playing around with the team’s pieces, he said. Kelvin knew they were playing Temple next. He knew they would not have Edwards, so he went over to his forward, Fabian White.

“Fabian, you’re going to get your dream,” Kelvin told him. “You get to be what you’ve never been. You get to be a three-man. You get to be a guard because we have no more guards.”

That is exactly what Houston did. The Cougars trotted out a seven-man rotation against the Owls in their conference opener. Fabian White put up 15 points and 14 rebounds in his debut at the three position, and Houston eked out a 66-61 victory over Temple.

“I still think that was our greatest win of the year because of the circumstances,” Kelvin said.

Kelvin stated that winning the American Athletic Conference regular season and postseason tournament titles and getting to the Elite Eight in NCAA Tournament speaks for itself. But coming together after the series of events on Dec. 23 was crucial for Houston.

“Our team, where we were, we were fractured, but we were tight,” Kelvin explained. “Our culture is we play for each other. I think there is nothing that embodied that more than after we knew that we lost Tramon, and then we lost Marcus.”

For Kelvin, losing Mark and Sasser was like having the channel on 112 and suddenly the program goes out. The Cougars had to find another channel, and they did. The window between Dec. 23 to Jan. 2 was crucial for the team’s success, Kelvin said.

“That was the most important stretch of the season cause you got to get them to believe too,” Kelvin said. “You got to get them to believe that they’re going to win.”

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