Culture / Sporting Life

No Call Robbery, an Enraged Houston and J’Wan Roberts’ Big Time Warrior Game — Inside a Wild Night in Alabama, and the Goaltending That Wasn’t

The Finish of Alabama vs. Houston Leaves Plenty of Questions — How One of the Best Games of the Year Became Controversial

BY // 12.12.21

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Sitting in a small conference room in the bowels of Coleman Coliseum — a bunch of tall leather chairs wedged under a wood table —  Kelvin Sampson waits for his Zoom call with reporters back in Houston to begin.

“Sometimes you’ve got to have guts,” he says. “You’ve got to have guts.” Sampson looks at me, shakes his head.

Sampson’s University of Houston team shows plenty of guts in losing at No. 9 Alabama 83-82 in one of the most hotly contested college basketball games of the entire season – anywhere. UH comes a goaltend that is not called at the buzzer away from picking up one of the most impressive wins any team in the country has (including Duke, Gonzaga, UCLA, etc. . .) this season. Houston is beyond gutsy. In a hostile environment. With some of the Cougars most important players picking up fouls at a rate that makes it seem like the refs think they’re running a going out of business sale on fouls.

Beyond gutsy — and still heartbroken. And enraged.

A potential 84-83 UH win at the buzzer never happens because the officiating crew decides not to call Alabama super frosh JD Davison flying over to fling away a Fabian White Jr. put back that is going down and seemingly headed for the cylinder. A packed and beyond electric Coleman Coliseum crowd would have gone berserk if goaltending was called. But calling it would have allowed the officials to review the play and given them the chance to make sure they got it right. (College basketball does not allow goaltending to be reviewed unless it’s called on the floor — even in a last play of the game situation  — which qualifies as one of dumbest rule nuances in all of sports.)

“If the whistle blows we walk out of here with a great win, Let’s not sit here and overanalyze this. Both teams played their hearts out. Our kids deserved to win the game.” — Kelvin Sampson

None of the three officials blow their whistle as Davison’s long arm flies into the vicinity of the cylinder. They also do not huddle up to make absolutely sure they all agree they got the call right after the final buzzer sounds. Instead, the officials just march towards their dressing room, offering no explanation at all to the crushed, disbelieving, desperate Houston players pleading for goaltending or even the slightest acknowledgement.

“No,” Sampson tells me softly after the Zoom when I ask him if the officials gave the UH players or anyone else any explanation at all. “None.”

That leaves Marcus Sasser and several Cougars racing after the officials down the court, pleading their case to a crew that refuses to even stop for them and offer an explanation. So much for the supposed kinder, gentler, more player friendly NCAA. . . The refs cannot even stop to give the players who poured their hearts out for 40 minutes of electric intense basketball — more than two hours of priceless programing for the NCAA — the briefest moment of their time? A simple explanation? The idea that student athletes are supposed to instantly known the nuances of when a goal tend is reviewable or not by instant replay is fantasyland stuff.

This creates the scene of security reaching towards Sasser as the officials reach the end of the court and march towards a back hallway. Though in truth, UH guard Taze Moore and a speeding Kellen Sampson are already cutting Sasser off from going any further or getting grabbed by security at this point.

Alabama coach Nate Oats goaltending
Alabama coach Nate Oats just stood there forever waiting for a handshake, bringing a slight touch of comedy to a wild goaltending dispute in Alabama. (@MattNorlander)

It also creates the more comical scene of Alabama coach Nate Oats standing in the middle of the court with his hand extended for several minutes, waiting for a postgame handshake that he knows is going to be delayed. But there is nothing funny about any of this to Houston’s players and coaches.

Several chairs by their bench area end up kicked over — and all of the Cougar players and coaches clear out of the visitors locker room in near record time. In fact, director of basketball operations Lauren Sampson is left wondering where everyone is as she quickly heads for the idling bus.

“That was a goal tend,” Lauren Sampson calls back as she hustles down the hall.

You’d have to be someone who lives in — or benefits from — SEC country to at least not acknowledge that it sure might have been a goaltend. It certainly deserved some discussion.

“If the whistle blows we walk out of here with a great win,” Kelvin Sampson says. “Let’s not sit here and overanalyze this. Both teams played their hearts out. Our kids deserved to win the game.”

In truth, Houston (now 8-2) deserves to be made a Top 10 team after this one, even with the official loss. The Cougars won’t be because that’s just not the way the polls work, but in a night when everything seemingly goes against them, Sampson’s team is a no call away from toppling the team that ran away from Gonzaga in a hostile environment.

To get to this debate — between the reality of 83-82 Alabama and the arguable should be of 84-83 Houston — takes a clinic in just why Kelvin Sampson’s team is so painful to play against. Houston shoots only 42 percent from the floor. Its best player Marcus Sasser misses 17 of the 25 shots he takes, including several open 3s that he usually hits. Four of its top seven players are saddled with four fouls. Alabama’s running game is deadly — with the Tide outscoring UH 18-8 in fast break points.

And still. . . Houston is right there, in position for a game-winning tip in at the buzzer.

UH’s Fight Turns J’Wan Roberts Into a Big Game Difference Maker

Sasser and Co. just absolutely refuse to stop coming, refuse to let up fighting. Instead., J’Wan Roberts — the redshirt sophomore from the U.S. Virgin Islands, a mere three star recruit who the UH coaches saw something in — goes man beast, grabbing an incredible nine offensive rebounds  (seven in the second half). Instead, Sasser hits one of the most clutch 3-pointers you’ll ever see — one his criminally underrated handle gives him just enough space to get off — to put Houston up 82-81 with 52 seconds left.

Instead, Sampson’s team leaves the Alabama players shaking their heads time and time again. There are serial killers with more let up in them than this UH group.

“That’s a great team we just played,” Alabama guard Juwan Gary says. “You’ve just got to fight tooth and nail and just get it done (against them).”

In truth, Houston (now 8-2) deserves to be made a Top 10 team after this one, even with the official loss.

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team opened their 2021-2022 season with an overtime victory over the HofstraPride, complete with the presentation of a banner commemorating their trip to last season’s Final Four, Tuesday night at the Fer
J’Wan Roberts is embracing his fierce rebounding role for UH. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

It’s virtually impossible to disrespect this UH team if you play against them. Not when you’re left with the battle scars to show for it.

Kelvin Sampson’s program is long past the stage where it is looking for bouquets from opponents (even well earned, well meaning ones) and morale victories though. And forget any quaint notions of proving something to themselves. That’s for bad sports movies and 1980s-style after school specials.

The very best programs in all of college basketball could care less about morale victories and proving points. It’s all about the wins. And that’s the level Sampson has this UH program — even if some Houston reporters don’t even quite seem to realize that.

Teams that know they’re good enough to make a run at a national title — and this year’s UH team is certainly starting to look good enough — aren’t clapping themselves on the back for coming close. Or even a no call away. In a way, this UH team’s outraged anger in the wake of the goal tend that wasn’t called is another sign of the program’s evolution.

This program wants what it’s earned.

“Look, we came here to win the game,” Kelvin Sampson says. “We scouted Alabama. We know how good they are. But we know how good we are too.”

Good enough to survive several no way triples — including a four point play — from ultra talented Alabama guard Jaden Shackelford. Good enough to all but overcome uncharacteristic nights from Kyler Edwards and Tramon Mark, who shoot a combined 2 for 13. Good enough to have first year starting point guard Jamal Shead grow up before their eyes and dart into the lane for several sure floaters before foul trouble slows him down.

Good enough to come a goal tend that wasn’t called away.

“Things that we can control, we have to do a better job of controlling,” Sampson says. “But gosh darn it, that was disappointing that he didn’t call that. That was disappointing. I felt bad for my kids. Not for me. I’ll live to fight another day.

“But these kids have invested so much. And they worked so hard. And they played so hard tonight.”

Beyond gutsy — and still heartbroken.

The Goal Tend That Wasn’t Called

Alabama’s coach could understand UH’s pain. Even after one of the college basketball games of the year so far. Oats has an elite team that can make a run at the national title too. He knows the pain can get worse when you know you’re really good.

“If I was in their shoes I’d be looking for a goaltending call too,” Oats says. “If they wanted a review — I looked at it from all different angles and it wasn’t close to being in the cylinder from what I saw.”

UH’s shocked players and coaches did not get a review. Or even the simplest of explanations from the refs. Instead, they just had their hearts ripped out.

Beyond gutsy — and still heartbroken.

Did the refs swallow their whistles before that soulless march off the court? Only, they will ever really know that. No one’s a mind reader. Both bad and good calls sometimes can be as random and happenstance as whether a jumper goes in or not on one specific shot.

What’s certain is that Alabama-Houston is a college basketball game that will be talked about for a while this season. Maybe it even will come back up in March. This was an Elite Eight game worthy battle in December.

UH gets two touches on that final play rebound sequence, essentially two one-handed shots from Fabian White on the fateful play. And no call. Just try and tell the Cougars that’s right.

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