Culture / Sporting Life

Instant UH Legend — DeJon Jarreau’s Pain Game Gives Him a Spot in Houston Sports Lore, Now Get the Real Inside Story

Jarreau's Will to Win, Tramon Mark's Crazy Put-Back and Kelvin Sampson's Underrated Adjustment Leads to a Magical NCAA Tourney Comeback for the Coogs

BY // 03.22.21

INDIANAPOLIS —After it’s over, after the comeback and a win that will be remembered for a long, long time, DeJon Jarreau and Kelvin Sampson find themselves the last two men on the court. The point guard who played through excruciating pain and the coach who kept telling this team they could find a way are waiting for their TV interviews. Sampson pulls Jarreau into just about the most gentle hug you will ever see.

It’s more of a pat really, not even a complete wraparound. There is no squeeze. Sampson does not want to inflict any more pain on Jarreau, who’s given so much to the University of Houston basketball program. So Sampson gives DeJon Jarreau the type of hug you might offer your 93-year-old grandmother. It’s all care and concern.

Then, the 6-foot-5 Jarreau dips his head and Sampson rubs it. It’s a sweet moment for the sweetest of Sweet 16 berths. It’s also indicative of this all-together team that refuses to fall apart when a dominant dream season appears to be lost. These two men, a 65-year-old basketball lifer who’s built a program and a home in Houston, and a once imperfect point guard turned perfect leader from a deadly New Orleans neighborhood that many never get out of, are not done creating magic together yet.

“It’s not our last game! It’s not our last game!” Jarreau keeps yelling from the sidelines when the pain in his screaming hip finally becomes too much and he has to sit out for a few minutes. “It’s not our last game!” Jarreau keeps yelling at his teammates in every timeout huddle after he does go back in.

“Each one of them looking at me like, ‘We got you,’ ” Jarreau says, recreating the scene in his postgame press conference. ” ‘This is not our last game.’ ”

And then somehow, someway, it isn’t. From down nine points with only four minutes and 34 seconds remaining to a 63-60 win. From dead to the Sweet 16, with Houston’s region of the bracket now wide open for Sampson’s battlers. This incredibly tough and incredibly together now 26-3 UH team is dancing on in one of the most wild NCAA Tournaments ever. Right into a Sweet 16 game with 11th seed Syracuse at 8:55 pm Saturday night, just two wins away from the Final Four berth the Cougars have been stalking all season and openly talking about amongst themselves.

DeJon Jarreau, playing with the type of hip pointer that usually requires at least a one to three week recovery time, wincing in agony more and more as the game goes on, shows the way. Then Tramon Mark, the super talent of a freshman who Jarreau calls his little brother, flies in out of nowhere to pluck a Jarreau miss out of the air one handed and somehow flip it in. In one motion, as he’s falling to the floor and being fouled. It’s an insanely athletic play from a 19-year-old who’s already shown a propensity for coming through in the biggest of moments.

And Mark’s 3-point play gives Houston a 61-60 lead with only 24.1 seconds left. Its first lead since the 16:25 mark of the second half.

“Tramon — he’s a warrior,” Jarreau says when I ask him about this bit of elevated Mark magic. “That’s actually my roommate when we on road games and me and him always talk. Just talk about the game. Just talk about life. Seeing him fly in there, get that rebound, get that And One and make the free throw, just shows his toughness.

“Show how important he is to this team.”

Houston vs Rutgers Tramon Mark
Tramon Mark (No. 12) came out of nowhere for the offensive rebound putback flick that won the game for Houston, (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

This is Jarreau’s night, the night he makes himself a University of Houston sports legend for all time. DeJon Jarreau should never have to pay for a drink at any UH alumni gathering for the rest of his life. He’s in Case Keenum territory now.

The way Jarreau fights through his game, sometimes holding his barking right hip with one hand even as he dribbles up the court with the other, is the stuff of sports movies. It’s Kirk Gibson hobbling around the bases after hitting a game-winning home run in the World Series. It’s is Houston’s own mini Willis Reed moment. Only, Jarreau plays much more and does much more than Reed did after his famous  limp out.

“Coach Samps kept asking me, Was I all right? Was I, OK?” Jarreau says. “Inside, I wasn’t OK. But I just wanted to win so bad. I don’t want it to end in that way.”

DeJon Jarreau does not just play. He plays 32 minutes — his battered hip feeling every single one of those 1,920 seconds of court time. And somehow puts up 17 points, five rebounds, two assists and one high-flying block.

“When I say he was in pain,” Sampson says. “He was in pain. I knew he was going to try and go today, but he got hit early in the game. . . DeJon’s leadership was huge tonight.”

DeJon Jarreau — Punished, But Never Bowed

Rutgers is one of the most physical teams in the Big Ten, arguably America’s most physical conference. The Scarlet Knights do their best to punish Jarreau. He’s picked up and pressured full court at times. He’s hit with a hard pick. Sent skidding across the shiny basketball court put in one half of the Indianapolis Colts’ football stadium. That one sends Jarreau hobbling to the sidelines in complete agony, finally forcing him to come out.

For three and half minutes. When he’s in the bench area, Jarreau sinks to his knees at one point and pounds the floor with his palms. It looks like the frustration of his body giving out when he needs it the most might be getting to him.

But then he’s back in. . . and diving on the floor for a crucial loose ball, getting Houston an extra possession.

Pain? What’s pain?

“I can’t even tell you how bad I wanted it,” Jarreau says. “It’s just will to win. Will not to go home. I’ve been through so much. Myself and with this team. . . My hip hurt so bad. But I just didn’t want to go home. So I told Coach Samps to put me back in and I just did what I had to do to try and help my team get this win.”

Make no mistake, part of the University of Houston’s basketball culture is having one of the very best coaches in the game. One who never stops searching for answers, one who isn’t afraid to try something different in the most pressurized moments.

This is Jarreau’s last ride with these Cougars, his last (and second) NCAA Tournament after having one taken away by COVID last year.  He knows this Houston team is good enough to make the Final Four and push for a national championship. They all do. Sampson’s players have been breaking huddles by shouting out “Final Four!” and “National title!” since the long, hard running days of preseason conditioning.

Jarreau keeps that vision, the promise these UH players have made to each other, alive. He helps grab it back just when it seems as out the door as a deadbeat dad three months behind in child support. But he does not do it alone. These Cougars always have a basketball brother who is ready to step in and help.

On this night, with the season slipping away, it’s Tramon Mark flying in from the weak side, showing how much he’s learned in Kelvin Sampson’s hard school of rebounding. It’s Marcus Sasser spotting the perfect opportunity and stepping in with the timing of a classical trained ballerina to take the ball away from Geo Baker, Rutgers best player, when he’s driving to try and steal the lead right back after Mark’s put-back magic. Sasser gets the ball clean and he’s suddenly racing the other way, getting fouled and hitting both free throws to put Houston up three with only nine seconds left.

“He was 1 for 9 (from the field), but he made two huge free throws and two great defensive plays,” Sampson says of Sasser in his postgame Zoom, one where only two Houston reporters are in the same building as him in this COVID NCAAs. “That tells you what type of kid he is.”

And what about Quentin Grimes? UH’s best player, its closer, goes through something of a nightmare from the free throw line. He misses three shots from the charity stripe in the last three minutes of the game. You can see the pain on his face, getting worse and worse after each one. But amidst that, Grimes still manages to hit a step back 3-pointer after grabbing the rebound of one of those free throw misses. He gets a breakaway slam off his own steal and a put-back layup, too. All in the final seven minutes.

Talk about never giving up.

Kelvin Sampson never gives up on any team. And he’s not about to start with this one — one of the most special groups he’s ever coached in more than 40 years on the sidelines, many much less glamorous than this shiny NCAA Tournament stage. UH’s coach makes the adjustment that changes everything, putting in Fabian White Jr., the Cougars’ best big man shooter, to play with a four guard lineup of Jarreau, Grimes, Sasser and Mark.

Down nine, with the dominant dream season all but waving goodbye, Houston’s coach pushes all his chips onto the Big Dance table and goes for it, giving his five best scorers the chance to create and use their speed and quickness to grab offensive rebounds. Rutgers is left flat footed, seemingly unsure how to react. Fabian White scores five quick points to keep the Cougars within range. And UH will outscore the Scarlet Knights 14 to 2 down the stretch with Kelvin Sampson’s own version of The Lineup of Death.

There is a lot of talk about culture after this game and rightly so. It is Sampson’s favorite word for a reason, what he cares most deeply about, down into his coaching bones. And Mark’s incredible put-back — as crazy athletic as it is — is a pure rebounding culture play. But make no mistake, part of the University of Houston’s basketball culture is having one of the very best coaches in the game. One who never stops searching for answers, one who isn’t afraid to try something different in the most pressurized moments.

“Coach Sampson is. . . man, a great coach,” Jarreau says. “He gives us confidence.”

DeJon Jarreau Kelvin Sampson UH
DeJon Jarreau and Kelvin Sampson’s player-coach relationship is one of college basketball’s best stories. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

On this Sunday night in a wild basketball March, Sampson gives his guys a chance when most of America is already crossing Houston off in their brackets. DeJon Jarreau now gets five days to try and pick himself up off the bed he collapses into after this one. Five days to rest and recover in the NCAA bubble in Indianapolis before facing off against Syracuse’s famed 2-3 zone and Buddy Boeheim. 

This is Jarreau’s night, the night he makes himself a University of Houston sports legend for all time. DeJon Jarreau should never have to pay for a drink at any UH alumni gathering for the rest of his life.

But first, the point guard who couldn’t imagine losing so he scripted a different ending one painful move at a time, and his coach share that moment. It’s not exactly quiet even if all the other UH players and coaches are already back in the locker room, jumping around. March is never quiet — as long as you’re still alive in the tournament.

Tournament personnel and Houston SID Jeff Conrad are nearby, waiting for the signal from TBS to get Sampson in position. Someone is holding the headset UH’s coach will wear for the interview. But first Sampson and Jarreau will get together again.

Every moment counts in the NCAA Tournament, but some count more than others. There is magic here in this little moment, amidst the noise, too. Maybe even the best part of March.

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