Richard Justice: It was a joy to watch this University of Houston team play, and one stinging loss won’t change that

Mar 24, 2023; Kansas City, MO, USA; Houston Cougars guard Marcus Sasser (0) controls the ball during the first half of an NCAA tournament Midwest Regional semifinal at T-Mobile Center. Mandatory Credit: William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Justice: It was a joy to watch this University of Houston team play, and one stinging loss won’t change that

   The thing that sometimes gets overlooked in these crazy games we love so much is that the other guys have dreams, too. They believe they’re the ones that can will themselves to victory and that they’re the ones that’ll be writing the ending. That they are the team of destiny.

   This is the lousy reminder the University of Houston men’s basketball team got in an 89-75 Sweet 16 loss to Miami on Friday. After a season of so much joy and packed arenas and such a sense that this all would have a magical ending.

   “I’m proud of my team for a lot of things,” UH head coach Kelvin Sampson said. “Unfortunately, one off-night and you go home in this tournament. We just never could get a foothold. We kept climbing, and we’d get ahead of them, and then we just couldn’t put stops together. I’m disappointed we lost, sure. A lot of tears in that locker room because they care. But I’ll go to war with this bunch any day.”

   What made this team so special? Thirty-three victories? Sure, that was part of it. Was it all those weeks atop the Associated Press Top 25? Yeah, a little bit. Was it these players—Marcus Sasser’s smarts and Jarace Walker’s breathtaking gifts and all the rest? You bet, that was some of it, too. Was it our city hosting the Final Four and the feeling that the Coogs could be part of it? Absolutely.

   It was all of that and more. Every day atop that AP poll, every victory, every award brought attention to what the University of Houston has become: a great university with a spirit and a drive to be among the best at everything.

   That’s the legacy school president Renu Khator, board chair Tillman Fertitta, AD Chris Pezman, and others are writing for themselves. They will be the first to acknowledge that Sampson’s construction of a dominant basketball program has shined a bright and positive light on all their good work.

   This is the thing about a one-and-done tournament. Your season is on the line every single night. It can all end in an instant if the shots don’t fall, if the defense is a step slow. 

   Coaches understand this better than the rest of us, especially someone like Sampson, who has known the highest and highs and lowest of lows in his four decades on the bench.

   He’d warned us, too. He told us Miami was the best offensive team the Coogs would play this season. He told us UM forward/center/whatever Norchad Omier reminded him of Hall of Famer Wes Unseld.

   “Basketball IQ off the charts,” Sampson said after Omier’s 12-point, 10-rebound performance that was easy to lose in the bright lights of Nijel Pack’s 26 points and Isaiah Wong’s 20.

   Omier anchored a defense that crowded the area around the basket and forced UH to play a perimeter game. On another night, the Coogs would have shot Miami out of that plan. On this night, though, Houston was 9-of-31 from beyond the arc and simply could not find a rhythm. That defense that allowed 58 points per game got lit up for 89.

   This is why they call it March Madness. Because one day when things are a little off, one day when an opponent figures something out, can bring it all to an end. All the other No. 1 seeds are out, too, although that’s no salve for the Coogs.

   “I don’t coach with regrets,” Sampson said this week. “Do the best you can. We can play really good and lose Friday because Miami is really good. Miami could play really good and lose. But one of us is going to go home. It’s the way it is. It’s my 19th NCAA Tournament. I’ve won a bunch of games, I’ve lost a bunch of games. That’s just the way it is. You don’t go home and punch holes in the wall because you lost. You did the best you can. That’s one of the great things as you get older, that you you’re at peace with. This is a moment in time.”

   This defeat will still sting awhile because there’s a new normal for men’s basketball at UH. In its last four NCAA Tournaments, UH has bumped the bar higher and higher with two Sweet 16s, an Elite Eight and a Final Four.

   Sampson will lose most of his starting lineup again and start over by assigning new roles and welcoming another elite recruiting class to campus.

   Inside the UH locker room, someone had written “33-4” on the white board, a reminder that this team did great things. It’ll be awhile before they appreciate that part of the story, but it’s absolutely true.

   “It was an amazing run,” Sasser said. “Came up short, but the time that we got to spend throughout these months, I couldn’t (ask) for nothing better. Then just coming back to this program, coaching staff, it was just amazing. I’d pick that choice 10 out of 10 every time.”

   When someone asked about the expectation of playing a Final Four in Houston, he said that was others, that life was simpler inside the UH locker room.

   “We were just taking it game by game,” he said. “Everybody else was thinking about that. We knew how hard it was to get to the Final Four. We fell a little short.”

   As the news conference wound down, Sasser was asked if he could sum up his time at UH before he’s off to the NBA and the next chapter of his life.

   “Everybody is just a family here, so everybody cares about each other,” he said. “The way they just take their time out of their day to come be in the gym with us all day when they’ve got families at home and other things to do, I couldn’t thank them enough for that. Coach and his coaching staff, they don’t just teach us lessons on the court, they teach us a lot of lessons off the court too. So I really just couldn’t thank them enough.”

   We were lucky, too. We’re the ones that got to watch these guys play. High school and college basketball has become such a thing in Texas, and it’ll be a blast watching UH compete in the Big 12 next season. Here’s hoping that in the days ahead, that the memory of this one disappointing night will fade and that Sasser and his teammate will appreciate how much they contributed to our city and their university.

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