Culture / Sporting Life

Inside Houston’s Epic Round of 32 Win For No. 32 — How Reggie Chaney’s Forever Heart, Ryan Elvin’s Clutch Guts & Ramon Walker’s Fight Push Kelvin Sampson’s Team to Overcome All

The Best Backcourt In America Shines, But It Takes Everyone For UH to Move On in the NCAA Tournament, Including a Forever Teammate

BY // 03.25.24

MEMPHIS — Stepping to the free throw line, Ryan Elvin looks at his mom in the stands, which makes him think of his dad. Ramon Walker Jr. will almost collapse into his own mom’s arms in the stands later, letting all the tears go. Karen Sampson, the coach’s wife who knows her Kelvin better than anyone, can’t get her knees to stop shaking. And Jamal Shead — the point guard who refuses to lose — well, he screams for Reggie Chaney, pointing to the No. 32 patch on his right shoulder over and over again, giving all the credit to the teammate who died much too soon.

The emotion just pours out after the University of Houston’s 100-95 overtime win over Texas A&M in one of the most epically crazy NCAA Tournament games that anyone’s ever seen. It’s coming from everywhere, from everyone. There are hugs that no one wants to let go of, tearful embraces that carry so much meaning. So Kelvin Sampson’s never-give-in, never-stop-believing Cougars hold onto each other tight and roar into the next round of this Big Dance mission of their lives.

In a Sunday night game in which four of the five Houston starters foul out, a game in which Texas A&M is given 45 free throws, a game in which power forward J’Wan Roberts is reduced to punching a cushioned bench chair in frustration over how much his damn right leg hurts at one point, this one of a kind UH team still finds a way. It takes every single one of them. And the beloved one who isn’t even there.

At least, not that anybody can see.

A Round of 32 win for the ages. For Houston’s 32nd win of the season. For No. 32. For Reggie.

“Everything was just perfectly aligned,” UH shooting guard Emanuel Sharp tells PaperCity with Houston’s locker room at the FedEx Forum finally quieting down a little. “It’s the Round of 32. We got a 32 on our jersey. And a lot of guys playing through injuries.

“Reggie would fight. And that’s what we did.”

Did they ever. This is a night when every single player left on Kelvin Sampson’s roster would enter the battle. Including the senior walk-on guard who’s never played in a crunch time moment for this UH team before. But there Ryan Elvin is getting thrown into the most tense situation anyone’s ever seen, a tighter-than-tight overtime game to keep everyone’s NCAA Tournament dream alive, getting sent to the free throw line with 17 seconds left with Houston clinging to a three point lead.

Elvin is the guy Texas A&M wants to foul, the walk-on who the Aggie nation is sure will fold under a pressure that’s melted superstar players in past tournaments. But they don’t know Ryan Elvin. They don’t know what he’s been through. They don’t know how much his teammates love and believe in him, proudly calling him one of their captains.

Yeah, Elvin never expected to be in this game. But that doesn’t mean he’s not going to rise to the moment.

“A little nerve racking,” Elvin tells PaperCity. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous.”

But Elvin’s Houston teammates will not let him stay nervous. One after another comes up to Elvin and tells him “You’re built for this! You’re built for this!” It’s a rallying call reminder of the thousands and thousands of shots this is anything-but-typical walk-on has put up in practice for this Houston team.

As he goes to the line, Ryan Elvin’s eyes find his mom Deirdre Elvin in the stands. It’s not intentional. It just happens. Almost like Scott Elvin, Ryan’s dad who died in October of 2021 at age 50 from an illness that baffled the doctors, is somehow guiding his son’s eyes there.

“It was weird,” Elvin tells PaperCity. “I saw my mom in the crowd right before I went to the free-throw line. I kind of looked over at her — I don’t know why I did that — but I’ve done that a lot in high school. In my big moments, look over at my dad and he’ll be like ‘You got this.’ So I saw her. And she was emotional I think.

“And that really triggered me to think about my dad.”

Elvin misses the first free throw. But he makes the all-important second one to push it to a two possession game, to help keep Texas A&M at bay, showing the guts of a champion. Scott Elvin would have absolutely loved that.

“You wish he was here,” Elvin says of his dad, his voice catching a little bit. “But you know that he prepared me for these types of situations. Holding me accountable when I was younger. Telling me to hold my follow through. Don’t miss it short. I missed the first one long. (My dad) probably would have been OK with that. It’s crazy. . .

“I know he prepared me the right way for my whole life. It’s very meaningful. I’m going to get emotional later for sure. Miss him a lot for sure. But I’m glad he had the impact he did, because if he didn’t, I’m not sure where I’d be right now.”

Ryan Elvin (second from left) cheered Houston on early and then found himself helping send UH to the Sweet 16 in a wild overtime win over Texas A&M. (Photo by Matthew A. Smith, courtesy UH athletics).
Ryan Elvin (second from left) cheered Houston on early and then found himself helping send UH to the Sweet 16 in a wild overtime win over Texas A&M. (Photo by Matthew A. Smith, courtesy UH athletics).

In the immediate, Ryan Elvin is in the Sweet 16 (again), with No. 1 seed Houston, now 32-4, set to play storied Duke on Friday night in Dallas in a CBS national showcase (with an approximately 8:45 pm tip). But thoughts of that superpower college basketball meeting pitting the program that Kelvin Sampson resurrected from nothing against the one that the already retired Mike Krzyzewski turned into one of college basketball’s ultimate brand names will have to wait for another day.

This one is still all about guys like Ramon Walker Jr. who fought to return for the NCAA Tournament from a knee injury and then ends up helping keep UH’s entire season — and national championship visions — alive. Thrust into the thick of it in overtime after playing less than four minutes in regulation, Walker still somehow has the sharpness — and more importantly, the desire — to fly in for an offensive rebound and twisting layup put-back hoop with 71 seconds remaining.

It’s as big as that Tramon Mark put back against Rutgers a few years ago in another beyond tense Round of 32 game that propelled Houston on to a Final Four run. Fittingly, UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson will find Walker at the final buzzer and wrap the energy man up into another tearful embrace. Kellen Sampson is the one who told Walker he’d be back for the NCAA Tournament just days after the knee injury, planting that first seed of belief.

“You wish he was here. But you know that he prepared me for these types of situations. Holding me accountable when I was younger. Telling me to hold my follow through. Don’t miss it short. I missed the first one long. (My dad) probably would have been OK with that. It’s crazy. . . ” — UH guard Ryan Elvin on his late father Scott Elvin

Ramon Walker Grabs His Houston Moment

Walker is as emotional as anyone after this one, maybe more emotional than anyone. With Kellen Sampson. And when he jumps up into the stands to be with his mom Sharanda and dad Ramon.

“It was awesome,” Walker tells PaperCity of the moment with his parents. “They were with me at the doctor’s office when they told me I didn’t have to have surgery. They were with me when I cried about that. And they’ve just been part of the journey. Me rehabbing my knee.

“And for them to be able to go out there and watch me help get a win, that’s just emotional for all of us.”

University of Houston Cougars beat the Penn Quakers at the Fertitta Center, Saturday December 13, 2023
University of Houston wing Ramon Walker Jr. can change games with his energy. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Houston wins this game because it has the best backcourt in America in Jamal Shead (21 points and 10 assists while playing 44 minutes and 42 seconds of this 45 minute marathon), LJ Cryer (20 points) and Emanuel Sharp (a career-high 30 points and seven threes when it matters most), sure. Shead, Cryer and Sharp combine to score 71 of Houston’s 100 points and largely control this game.

But Kelvin Sampson’s team does not win without Ramon Walker, Ryan Elvin, Damian Dunn, Cedric Lath and Mylik Wilson, who follows Elvin’s free throw make with a clutch one of his own with eight seconds left and adds nine points and six rebounds off the bench. And these Cougars certainly do not advance without J’Wan Roberts (13 points, eight rebounds and four blocks) dragging himself off the floor after re-injuring his right leg in the first half and somehow playing 21 of the 25 minutes of game action after halftime.

“Even if I was feeling like I was going to be done for the game, I was going to put myself right back in,” Roberts, who gets his hurting right knee drained every week with a giant needle, says of that first half fall. “I just can’t let my guys down like that. I just needed to come out for a while and just catch myself.

“But I knew I was going to go back in regardless.”

“Every single player on this roster took that to heart. We didn’t quit. Even with four starters out, we didn’t quit. And Reggie was with us that game. . . Very emotional. Reggie was with us that game.” — UH wing Ramon Walker on former teammate Reggie Chaney, who died in August

Loss, Life and Basketball

No matter what, Kelvin Sampson’s team keeps going. Keeps fighting. Houston’s 68-year-old basketball lifer of a coach knows about real life loss, the kind that means so much more than basketball. His sister died just before the start of UH’s postseason last March and he lost Reggie Chaney in August. At just 23 years old. Sometimes the ones who are not there are the ones you think about the most.

“All the time,” Karen Sampson, the coach’s wife, says when I ask how often her husband thinks about Chaney. “Every day. Definitely every road game. Reggie loved road games. The louder the better. The more hostile the better.”

It does not get much more hostile than being pushed to the brink with a Sweet 16 berth on the line. Sampson himself says he tries not to bring up Reggie all the time because it’s not fair emotionally to his guys. But at halftime of this Round of 32 game, he invokes No. 32.

Sampson asks Roberts directly: “What would Reggie do in this second half? Tell me?”

“(J’Wan) looked at me,” Sampson says, “And he was starting to get emotional. Jamal (Shead) was getting ready to boo (hoo).”

Mentioning Chaney stirs something in these Cougars. It hits them right in the heart. Makes them believe they can do more. Fight just a little bit harder.

“We took that to that heart,” Walker says of Sampson’s halftime speech for No. 32. “And every single player on this roster took that to heart. We didn’t quit. Even with four starters out, we didn’t quit.

“And Reggie was with us that game. . . Very emotional. Reggie was with us that game.”

That No. 32 patch is not just a patch. It is a stand in for the UH players’ feelings for their forever teammate Reggie Chaney, who died much too soon. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
That No. 32 patch is not just a patch. It is a stand in for the UH players’ feelings for their forever teammate Reggie Chaney, who died much too soon. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Now, Walker, Shead, Roberts and Co. will carry No. 32 into the Sweet 16, with Houston two wins from the Final Four, four wins from reaching the national championship quest that’s driven them all season.

A Round of 32 win for No. 32. For Ryan Elvin’s dad, for each other too. With much more to come.

You could almost write an entire good book just about this game. It has that many twists, turns and double take moments. Most wins are measured on the scoreboard. But with some special wins, you need to see it in the hugs.

To just hold on tight and keep dancing.

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