Selflessness: the story of the Class of 2023 Houston Cougars basketball seniors

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Kevin M Cox/AP/Shutterstock (13790487b) Wichita State forward James Rojas (33) is double-teamed by Houston forward Reggie Chaney (32) and guard Marcus Sasser (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, in Houston Wichita St Basketball, Houston, United States – 02 Mar 2023

Selflessness: the story of the Class of 2023 Houston Cougars basketball seniors

The Houston Cougars basketball team closed out its final home game of the season with a dominant second-half showing to roll over Wichita State. Then the celebration began.

No. 1 Houston, who clinched the outright American Athletic Conference regular season championship on Saturday, celebrated the achievement following Thursday’s 83-66 win over the Shockers.

Once the final buzzer sounded inside the Fertitta Center, the court became a giant party for Houston (28-2, 16-1 AAC). It was a merger of a title celebration, a senior celebration, and the acknowledgment of it being the first step to what the Cougars hope is more festivities like it.

“It is my first goal,” head coach Kelvin Sampson said. “Win the conference. Make the tournament. These kids have worked hard.”

Since June 1, the Cougars have gone through 32 days of summer sessions, 24 additional ones in the fall, 96 practices, 24 workouts, and 36 conditioning days, Sampson said.

Add in 30 games and mix it up with a couple of scrimmages against Duke and Texas prior to the season’s start, and UH’s players have put in a lot of work to prepare for right now — March.

“It is not easy being a college basketball player,” Sampson said. “These guys have earned everything they’ve gotten, and I am very, very proud of them.”

Houston’s game against Wichita State had a little bit of everything. The Cougars went with only their third different starting lineup of the season by beginning the game with Darius Bowser and Reggie Chaney in the frontcourt instead of the usual tandem of J’Wan Roberts and Jarace Walker.

The Shockers led by as many as eight points early in the first half and trailed by just two points at halftime. Houston, however, saw senior guard Marcus Sasser and junior guard Jamal Shead ignite in the second period. Both of them had stretches that they could not miss in the second half. Sasser ended the game with 24 points, and Shead set a new career-high with 25 points.

Once the game ended, Sampson got on the microphone and spoke to the Fertitta Center crowd. For the third consecutive game, the Houston Cougars set a new attendance record for a men’s basketball game, this time 7,879 people packed into the arena to watch the No. 1 team in the country.

“Thank you for the support and see you soon,” Sampson told the crowd.

Sampson then presented Sasser with a game ball to honor him in his final home game with Houston. A few minutes later, the public address announcer revealed the Dallas native had set two program records following UH’s win.

The first was tying the all-time program record for most career 3-pointers. Sasser is currently tied with Robert McKiver for No. 1 with 261 makes. Sasser’s next 3-point basket will make him the outright holder of the record.

With the win, Sasser also tied former teammate Fabian White Jr. for most wins ever at Fertitta Center. Both of them ended their careers at Houston with 49 wins inside the building.

Leading up to Thursday’s game, big man Reggie Chaney, who was also honored on his senior night, said his favorite moment with Houston was seeing White becoming the most winningest player in UH history.

After the Wichita State game, he now has a co-favorite moment. In some ways, it was a full-circle moment for the Tulsa, Oklahoma, native.

“When I first came in, just seeing the work [Sasser and White] put in, I kind of jumped on their wagon,” Chaney told Gallery Sports. “They already had something going. I had to join them. I admired that, so yeah, both of them are definitely the same for sure.”

Chaney, who transferred to the program before the 2020-21 season after White tore his ACL in the offseason, also reflected on his time with Houston after the game. For him, choosing the Cougars was the right option.

“It’s been a ride, man,” Chaney said. “Like, Final Four, Elite Eight, it’s been a journey. I’m never going to forget coming here and making the big decision to come here and committing here, I’m glad I did it. It is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

For this year’s group of seniors, the one word that ties them together is selflessness. Bowser, who transferred to the program this past offseason as a graduate student, knew he was not going to see the floor in games often for Houston.

Sampson told him he was needed to be a practice player and help Houston’s frontcourt players, especially in the summer and fall. Bowser accepted the role. He also continued to pursue his higher education, and by the time he leaves the University of Houston, he will have a master’s degree in human resources development.

“I’m glad I was fortunate enough to be a part of the team, be a part of this journey,” Bowser said on Tuesday. “I think this is everybody’s dream to play for a team like this with a culture like this. It was more than I could have ever imagined I would have accomplished.”

As for Chaney, he was a player that had started for the Cougars during their Final Four run in 2020-21. He could have asked for a more significant role or transferred to another team where he would have been a featured player offensively, but he chose to stay at Houston, assistant coach Kellen Sampson told Gallery Sports on Tuesday.

Sasser could have kept his name in the NBA Draft. Kelvin Sampson and Sasser had many heart-to-heart talks during last offseason, but Sasser never asked him what he should do, the head coach said. Sampson was never going to tell him what to do unless he asked.

Sasser never did. Sampson told him to respect the process and to make the decision he felt was right for him. If Sasser felt the best decision was to move on to the NBA, Sampson would have supported him 100%, Sampson stated. Sasser chose to return.

“These times you are always going to remember, just making these memories with this group of guys I call my brothers,” Sasser said.

With the final chapter of the 2022-23 home schedule written, there are still a few more pages waiting to be finished in Houston’s season. The latest page will get filled on Sunday in Memphis. There is the conference tournament after that, and then the NCAA Tournament awaits.

For Houston’s seniors, however, their legacy will be summed up by one word — selflessness.

“All those guys could have chosen to be selfish, and they’ve chosen to be selfless,” Kellen Sampson said. “Maybe as selfless of a group that we’ve had, and that is incredible.”

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