For Kelvin Sampson, North Carolina homecoming ends with a conference championship for Houston

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Scott Kinser/CSM/Shutterstock (13783451p) Houston Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson reacts to the call during the first half of the AAC basketball matchup against the East Carolina Pirates at Minges Coliseum in Greenville, NC NCAA Basketball Houston at East Carolina, Greenville, USA – 25 Feb 2023

For Kelvin Sampson, North Carolina homecoming ends with a conference championship for Houston

GREENVILLE, N.C. — With hundreds of friends and family in attendance, the No. 1 Houston Cougars basketball team, led by head coach Kelvin Sampson, cruised to a 76-57 victory over the East Carolina Pirates on Saturday.

It was only fitting that Sampson’s team clinched the first of what UH hopes are multiple championships in the coming weeks just 150 miles east of Pembroke, North Carolina, where both Kelvin and his wife Karen are from.

“We’ve been at this a long time,” Sampson said after the game. “Our kids know how to win. I say that a lot, we’ve figured out how to play our system, be unselfish. Happy for our kids to be rewarded with winning the conference championship. That is not easy to do.”

The Cougars (27-2, 15-1 AAC) controlled the game from almost the opening tip. While holding ECU without a field goal for over 11 minutes of game time on Saturday, Houston built up as much as a 23-point lead as it notched its 10th win on the road in as many tries.

Redshirt sophomore guard Tramon Mark shined against the Pirates. He ended the game with 20 points and nine rebounds. He was the best player on the court on Saturday, Sampson said.

Once the final buzzer sounded, the players, joined by the coaches, gathered in their locker room. With water bottles and energy drinks, the players celebrated by drenching everyone in the small room. It was pandemonium.

Eventually, Sampson made his way down the hallways of Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum and into the press room to speak with a handful of reporters.

He was asked about the team becoming the lone AAC regular season champion, to which he replied by saying it is awesome for his players, and they should enjoy it.

For the players, winning the AAC regular season title served as a culmination of the hard work they have put in throughout the year, Mark said.

“I’m proud for myself and my team,” Mark stated. “It is a great feeling to have. Great step going into the next stretch of our season.”

Despite having the title secured and only two games left in the regular season, Houston’s mentality won’t change, Mark said. The team has much higher aspirations ahead of it, and the Cougars’ competitiveness won’t allow for their standard to waver at the end of the year.

“We want to win every single game,” Mark said. “We don’t want to lose one game at all.”

For the Cougars, the next phase of their season is right around the corner. After the regular season ends, Houston will focus on the AAC Tournament and then gear up for the NCAA Tournament.

The ultimate goal is to win the elusive national championship. It is the only hardware that is missing from Houston’s recent run of excellence under Sampson and was never even attained under coach Guy V. Lewis.

“Everybody on the team knows that, from the players to the staff, to the managers, so you know, we are going to definitely tune it up, we are definitely going to tune it up,” Mark said. “But as of right now, we are going to celebrate right now.”

For Sampson, Saturday’s win was somewhat of a full-circle moment. Everything began in the state of North Carolina for the Houston coach.

From meeting his wife to graduating undergrad at then-Pembroke State University, now known as The University of North Carolina at Pembroke – it all began in North Carolina.

“From there we just kind of found our way around the country and the world,” Sampson said. “Pembroke; East Lansing, Michigan; Butte, Montana; Washington; Norman, Oklahoma; Bloomington, Indiana; where at next? Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Houston, Texas.”

No one knows how Sampson’s chapter with the Houston Cougars will end or what the remaining pages will include. In a tournament that has become popular for its unpredictability and madness, there will be only one winner when the clock runs out on the first Monday of April.

There is always only one winner at the end of every season. However, there is one thing, that Sampson knows for sure though. Houston will be the final chapter of his coaching career.

“This will be my last stop,” Sampson said. “I don’t know how much longer I have left but it’s been a blessing.”

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