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Culture / Sporting Life

UH Basketball Wins its First Championship in 27 Years in One Glorious Cougars Night — Go Inside the Party

Kelvin Sampson Brings Program All the Way Back From the Dead — and More Celebrations are Very Much in Play

BY // 03.08.19

The commemorative T-shirts are quickly pulled on in the midst of the happy mosh pit of Houston players jumping, bumping and sliding on their sparkling new court. Moments later, the conference championship trophy makes an appearance — and it’s quickly grabbed and raised to the sky.

The University of Houston basketball program has not seen this type of hardware in 27 years. That’s practically a lifetime ago — it’s longer than any of these UH players have been alive.

But this remarkable Houston team is determined to make history — and it has something significant etched in the books now. The first conference title of any kind since 1992. It’s won on a rollicking Thursday night at the Fertitta Center, where anyone among another sellout crowd of 7,039 (and then some) should consider themselves lucky to be in the building.

Nights like this don’t happen very often in Houston sports. Sometimes, they take 27 years — the last five coming with Kelvin Sampson orchestrating one of the greatest resurrection jobs in college basketball history.

“Man, we might have been underground, we were so far down,” UH senior guard Galen Robinson Jr. says, suddenly surrounded by so much joy.

This moment’s been building all season and on March 7, 2019, the record will show that the Cougars finally kicked down the door. The red American Athletic Conference Champions T-shirts come out, the ladder’s brought out to cut down the nets and it’s time to marvel at where the ride’s reached.

Even if almost everyone associated with this program thinks this is just the first monster March moment — with several more even bigger ones to come.

“We plan on cutting down some more nets,” University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman says.

Once UCF beats Cincinnati 58-55 in a game that ends minutes into the start of UH’s own game, there is little doubt that this will be the night. There is no way Houston is going to let a below .500 SMU team halt history. The 90-79 win is never in doubt, with UH clinching at least a tie for the conference title and the No. 1 seed in next week’s conference tournament in a torrent of threes and snarling rebounds.

Bring out the ladder. Some nets need snipping.

“I haven’t felt this feeling since high school,” junior guard Armoni Brooks tells PaperCity. “…We won district championships my senior and junior year. So it’s been a long three years since I’ve been on top of that ladder.”

This is another level of ladder, though. The ladder on Houston’s court is actually the ladder that Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione sent Sampson in the mail as soon as the man who once led Oklahoma to the Final Four was named UH’s coach in 2014. “I hope you’ll need to use this a lot during your journey as a Houston Cougar,” Castiglione wrote in the accompanying note.

This is next level party planning — five long years in advance work.

As UH’s Senior Night game with SMU tips off, Robinson finds himself casting glances up at the around the country scores displayed on one of the Fertitta Center’s fancy new video boards. And who can blame him?

“At the first media (timeout), it said 58-55 final,” Robinson says of the Cincinnati loss Houston needed, “and I knew that if we won the game, we were going to have the chance to cut down some nets. And that was my main goal.”

Welcome to hoops heaven.

One Shining Moment

The party is still going strong on the Fertitta Center court more than an hour after the game as the clock races past 11 pm. In a quiet moment on the side, Brooks looks at the championship T-shirt he’s wearing and smiles.

“I’m never going to wear this shirt again,” he says. “I’m going to put it somewhere and look at it sometimes as motivation to do more.”

University of Houston Cougars Kelvin Sampson
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson shows off the spoils of cutting down the net. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

This now 28-2 UH team knows it holds the chance to do much, much more in its hands. The AAC tournament is next week in Memphis. Selection Sunday is a week from Sunday. The NCAA Tournament — and as high as a No. 3 seed if the Cougars can take care of business — beckons just days after that.

This is the time of year in college basketball where shining moments happen, and dreams come true.

But who can blame Kelvin Sampson for wanting to savior this moment, this championship, these players who he’s pushed so hard and who have given him so much? Sampson’s been pleading with everyone to take time to enjoy the journey for weeks, knowing fully well that 28-2 can be as rare as Halley’s Comet. Or Kyrie Irving taking the blame for something.

“It’s gratifying personally,” Sampson says, a huge chunk of net still in his hand, championship hat and T-shirt on. “But I’m proud of our program. Proud of our trainers. Proud of our wives. Proud of our staff.

“Our basketball program is like a little cocoon.”

For most of those 27 years between conference titles, UH basketball’s expectations could have fit inside a little cocoon. That’s 27 long years of essentially being off the college basketball map. With an irritable old basketball lifer showing the way, UH has made it all the way back from the hoops hinterlands.

“Man, we might have been underground, we were so far down,” UH senior guard Galen Robinson Jr. says, suddenly surrounded by so much joy.

University of Houston basketball wasn’t just underground for decades. It’d been buried and left for dead.

And you thought the kids in Stranger Things had a tough time getting out of The Upside Down. That’s nothing compared to where Kelvin Sampson had to bring UH’s program back from.

“I’m always a guy who looks back,” Sampson says. “When I had my (introductory) press conference, I’d never seen the locker room here.”

That’s probably a good thing — because Sampson might not have taken the job if he realized quite how terrible that locker room was at the old Hofheinz Pavilion. Of course, the coach who’s driven power programs such as Oklahoma and Indiana had been in Hofheinz enough to know that many of its ancient seats actually tilted like some twisted, deformed carnival ride.

That only took one visit to see.

But there Sampson is five years later, sharing an on-court embrace with Houston billionaire Tilman Fertitta, whose $20 million gift helped make the $60 million state of the art palace that bears his family name possible, as his players celebrate a title.

If Houston wins at Cincinnati on Sunday it will have the conference championship all to itself, but no matter what happens in a few days in the Midwest, it is bound to be anticlimactic after this celebration in the heart of The Third Ward.

Bring out the ladder. Some nets need snipping.

Armoni Brooks’ March Spree

Kelvin Sampson is informed his program is on the brink of an unforgettable night just three minutes and 28 seconds into the game. His son Kellen Sampson, an assistant coach on the team, informs him that Cincinnati’s gone down.

The 63-year-old coach nods, keeps his tie on (for the moment) and gets right back to coaching, right back to pushing his guys for more.

“We plan on cutting down some more nets” — University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman

Sampson knows how special it will be to clinch on the night that seniors Robinson, Corey Davis Jr. (17 points), Breaon Brady (16 points four offensive rebounds) and Landon Goesling (the team’s long curly haired matinee idol) play their last home game ever.

Then, Brooks goes about making sure it happens. In fact, the junior from Round Rock comes out firing like he’s determined to get it done by halftime, hitting four of his first five 3-point shots, never giving SMU (13-16) a real chance to even think of an upset.

“Probably after my second shot,” Brooks says when I ask when he knows he’s got something cooking. “My teammates were really, really amazing in getting me the ball in position to score.”

With Brooks’ range, that is sometimes almost anywhere within 30 feet of the basket. He hits six of the 10 triples he takes on the night, adds 10 rebounds for good measure.

University of Houston Cougars celebration
University of Houston’s basketball players enjoyed the moment. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

This first monster March moment may just show how dangerous this UH team can be in college basketball’s most important month. These Cougars have been plotting this for a long time — even if it’s taken forever for everyone else to catch on.

“The Oregon game, we kind of knew we could be special,” freshman Nate Hinton says of the 65-61 win over a Top 20 team that opened the Fertitta Center back on December 1. “Got to be special.”

Hinton is the type of four star recruit that Houston usually has (or had) no chance of getting. But he came to Cullen Boulevard anyway and there the jumping jack of a freshman is on Senior Night, putting up nine points, nine rebounds and a team best plus 20 rating in 27 all energy minutes.

“We’ve got a good program going here,” Kelvin Sampson says, seeing the future a little. Still, this moment calls. This moment demands notice.

Bring out the ladder. Some nets need snipping.

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