Despite a frustrating end, Kelvin Sampson is ‘grateful’ to have coached this Houston Cougars basketball team

Mar 24, 2023; Kansas City, MO, USA; Houston Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson on the sideline during the second half of an NCAA tournament Midwest Regional semifinal at T-Mobile Center. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a frustrating end, Kelvin Sampson is ‘grateful’ to have coached this Houston Cougars basketball team

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Written on the Houston Cougars basketball team’s whiteboard inside their locker room was a simple message following its tough 89-75 loss to Miami in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament: 33-4.

Kelvin Sampson wrote the record, and he told his team not to hang their heads, senior center Reggie Chaney told Gallery Sports in the locker room after the game. In the midst of numerous tears from everyone, they all listened to their head coach.

Sampson’s message was simple. For the guys coming back, take the loss as a learning opportunity. For those leaving, even though they fell short of winning the national championship, their final contributions to the Cougars still led to a successful year.

“Even after all that, we still had an amazing season,” Chaney said. “We won the regular season [title], we made it to the Sweet Sixteen, it is something a lot of teams would kill to do.”

On the court of the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Houston just could not keep up with the onslaught of the Hurricanes.

After trailing going into the halftime break, the Cougars fell behind by double-digits early in the second half to Miami. Sampson called a timeout, and UH answered with a 13-4 run that got the team within two at 51-49.

The Hurricanes answered with a 19-4 run that put the game away, fueled by a bombardment of 3-pointers, three of which came from sophomore Nijel Pack.

“The Pack kid, some of the shots he made were shots you hope he takes,” Sampson said. “The problem was he made them. Those were — some of those were Howitzers. But we needed to make a play. We had a transition 3 right in front of our bench. Those are the shots we’ve made all year, but not tonight. Our kids kept fighting.”

For the Cougars, the season ends just two wins away from returning to the Final Four and playing in Houston at NRG Stadium. While the possibility of returning home for the Final Four was an underlying storyline for the entire season, senior guard Marcus Sasser said it played no factor in Friday’s loss. UH was in a game-by-game mindset, he explained.

Still, it was an opportunity that would have made for a great script. This year’s Final Four will be the last one called by legendary broadcaster and UH alumnus Jim Nantz. Nantz called all three of Houston’s games during its NCAA Tournament run.

“It just sucks because I feel like this year was our year,” redshirt freshman guard Emanuel Sharp said. “Just to come up short like this, when you know you were so close to getting back to Houston is just rough.”

After the game, Nantz was outside the Houston locker room just minutes before he had to get under the headset to call the Texas Longhorns’ victory over Xavier to advance to the Elite Eight.

“It’s March Madness, you know,” Nantz told reporters as he shook hands with some of the Houston-affiliated media.

Now that it is all said and done, some of the Cougars’ players will go their separate ways. This iteration of UH will never step on the court together again. Freshman forward Jarace Walker will head to the NBA, and so will Sasser. Chaney’s days of college eligibility are over as well.

For Sasser, his decision to return to the Cougars after last season was all about March. He wanted to help UH win its first-ever national title in its own city. Despite falling short, it is a choice he would make all over again if he could, he said.

“The time that we got to spend throughout these months, I couldn’t have asked for nothing better,” Sasser said. “Just coming back to this program, coaching staff, it was just amazing. I’d pick that choice 10 out of 10 every time, so it was a great run for sure.”

While it was not the ending it wanted, Houston’s 2022-23 team will have a special place in Sampson’s and all of the individual coaches’, staff’s, and players’ hearts.

“I’m disappointed we lost, sure,” Sampson said. “A lot of tears in that locker room because they care, but I’ll go to war with this bunch any day. 33-4, losing four older, 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,” Sampson stated.

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