Culture / Sporting Life

Inside a UH Dream Season’s Ending Of Sadness — Tears, Jarace Walker’s NBA Draft Declaration, Marcus Sasser Heartbreak and a Houston Brotherhood That Will Live On

Trying to Paint This Season as a Failure or a Disappointment Misses the Entire Point of Sports

BY // 03.25.23

KANSAS CITY — It ends with tears in the locker room, with University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson scrawling 33-4 on the big whiteboard to try to give his hurting guys some perspective (even though he knows it’s futile in the moment), with senior forward Reggie Chaney standing up to say something. Chaney never says anything, but the tough guy battler who’s meant so much to this program wants his guys, his brothers, to know how much he loves them.

It also ends with UH super freshman forward Jarace Walker matter of factly confirming he’s declaring for the NBA Draft. Yes, Kelvin Sampson could have to replace three starters after this season (Walker, All-American guard Marcus Sasser and maybe wing guard Tramon Mark) too. But that’s a worry for another night, a yearly challenge that Sampson is used to making work. This night is about a special team, an unforgettable Houston team really, that found itself not playing to its program’s defensive standards on the worst possible night.

Miami 89, Houston 75 is no indictment on the season — even if some of the jump-on-lately types will try to make it that way. But it is about the saddest, and most unexpected, possible ending for this team. Jim Nantz, the proud UH alum who gives the voice to so many of sports’ biggest moments, waits outside the Houston locker room with moist eyes, hoping to get to say a few words before he has to leave to get back on the air. Houston athletic director Chris Pezman has tears in his eyes as he waits in the hallway outside that locker room too.

But that is nothing compared to what is going on inside that room, with how much Marcus Sasser, Jamal Shead, Jarace Walker, Reggie Chaney, Tramon Mark and J’Wan Roberts are hurting. A loss like this when you’re expecting so much just rips a player’s heart out and throws it on the floor. A coach’s too.

No one gets to write their own endings in the one-and-done NCAA Tournament though. Not even a player who’s given as much to the game of college basketball as Marcus Sasser, who put the NBA Draft off a year for one more run with his brothers. Not even a super talent like Jarace Walker, who plays as hard as Kelvin Sampson taught him too in this Sweet 16 game, putting up 16 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and four blocks when almost no one else could get anything going.

“I don’t think I’ve ever cried this much after a loss,” Walker says, still wearing his white No. 25 UH jersey sitting at his locker more than a half hour after the final buzzer. “Just knowing this was my last. . . We just got so close so quick. We had been through so much so fast.

“When I call these people my brothers, I really mean that.”

Moments later, the 19-year-old who has much ahead of him adds: “I just cried my ass off.”

This is how it ends for the team that brought an unprecedented amount of attention to the University of Houston, to a group that reigned at No. 1 atop the national rankings for huge stretches of the season. If you do not think having to constantly hear how the Final Four is in Houston this season added extra pressure on this team — created an unnecessary burden in many ways — you’re just not very aware. But this team never shied away from that burden, never tried to beg off that or any other challenge.

There will be no excuses after getting blitzed by this talented, hungry and often overlooked Miami team either. No one in that UH locker room talks about all the injuries (knee, back) that robbed lifeline point guard Jamal Shead of being at his best when Houston needed him most. No one brings up that bizarre end of the first half officiating sequence that makes Kelvin Sampson beyond hot. Tramon Mark answers a question about it when asked, but never branishes officiating as an excuse.

“I definitely was fouled on that last shot (at the first half buzzer),” Mark tells PaperCity. “I was fouled. But I didn’t expect to get the call.”

In the end, this Houston team can’t rise to the moment in another big game. But that does not invalidate all the ones that came before it, the often breathtakingly selfless play (and passing) that defined this team at his best. The win at Virginia when Walker showed off all his NBA talent when Houston needed it most. The Jamal Shead buzzer beater at Memphis that shut up an entire packed NBA arena. The dominant run in Houston’s last season in the American Athletic Conference. The second half comeback against Auburn in the Big Dance when Tramon Mark told Jamal Shead not to worry.

No one could do that against Miami on a cold and spitting wet Friday night in Kansas City. Not with Nijel Pack (26 points) turning into Steph Curry, draining seven 3-pointers, leaving Shead and Roberts jawing at each other after one more long open look goes down. Not with Isaiah Wong (2o points) looking every bit like the ACC Player of the Year.

The Hurricanes (28-7) shoot 52 percent from the field, unrecognizable numbers against a Kelvin Sampson coached team.

“I’m proud of my team for a lot of things,” Sampson says. “Unfortunately, one off night and you go home in this tournament. We just never could get a foothold. We kept climbing, and we’d get ahead of them, and then we just couldn’t put stops together.”

UH coach Kelvin Sampson message
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson wrote 33-4 on the whiteboard in the UH locker room after this special team’s season ended with a Sweet 16 loss to Miami. (@UHCougarMBK)

This 33-4 Houston team held 11 opponents under 50 points in a game, 22 foes under 60 points. Miami puts up 89, 14 more points than Alabama scored in Sasser, Shead and Co.’s previous worst defensive game.

“It’s tough I just love these group of guys we had,” Tramon Mark says. “We just all had a great bond with each other. So it just sucks it had to come to this and we didn’t get some more days together.”

A stinker in the Sweet 16 can’t erase those bonds. Miami 89, Houston 75 doesn’t erase all this team did this season, even if those who always seem eager to doubt Kelvin Sampson’s elite program at any chance will paint it that way. It just means Houston came four March wins short of its ultimate goal, after coming three wins short last season and two wins short in that 2021 Final Four run. So many people want to see Kelvin Sampson win a national championship.

That will have to wait for another year, another season. Sampson, who found out his twin sister had died the morning of UH’s conference tournament opener and only publicly talked about it once very briefly, never wants it to be about him. This 67-year-old basketball lifer of a coach will tell you that this game has given him plenty.

Marcus Sasser, Reggie Chaney and a Hollow Ending

This loss is the end of an incredible Houston run for Marcus Sasser, who came to the Third Ward as the 399th ranked player in his high school class and leaves it as the school’s first first-team All-American since Hakeem Olajuwon.

Sasser is who Jim Nantz finds himself thinking about at the end of this night, with the clock towards midnight.

“I hated to see Marcus Sasser’s career end this way tonight,” Nantz tells PaperCity after calling Texas’ win over Xavier. “Heartbreaking thinking of all the things he went through. Through injury a year ago. Through the Final Four season when he tried to lift the team on his back against Baylor in the Final Four and was the top scorer in the game for both sides.

“And just quality. The quality of the individual he is. You get attached to them as a fan. And there’s an emotion there where they’re repping us. And that never goes away. They repped the city in such a beautiful fashion.”

Sasser can’t lift all of Houston on this night. He only gets up 12 shots against Miami, misses six of the eight threes he takes. And besides a stretch of blinding determination from a beat up injured Shead in the second half, who scores 15 points in the final 20 minutes, there isn’t enough help. UH senior forward Reggie Chaney (six points, five rebounds) is the only Cougar player who has his A game in many respects.

And then. . . it’s all over.

“It’s just a lot to take in,” Chaney says softly. “To think about. Everything start flowing through your mind. The first day I stepped on campus to the Final Four, the Elite Eight, this moment.

“Just knowing that you’re never going to put on a Houston jersey again. It’s a terrible feeling man.”

This tough guy from Tulsa has always brought an inordinately large heart to everything he does for this Houston program. And after it’s over, Chaney, the guy who never wants to be the center of attention follows Sampson’s speech with a few words of his own.

“I just love all of them,” Chaney says of his teammates, his message and the forever bounds that will live on.

This super team, one of the more unforgettable University of Houston basketball teams ever, does not get itself the ending it wants. Instead, it’s sadness, some regrets and the sudden realization that this group’s time together has suddenly come to an end.

“I just feel like this could have been the year,” Roberts says. “But we fell short.”

In the end, this Houston team can’t rise to the moment in another big game. But that does not invalidate all the ones that came before it, the often breathtakingly selfless play (and passing) that defined this team at his best.

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team were beat by the Temple Owls Saturday at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson is never comfortable in a game. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

In many ways, the NCAA Tournament, for all its delightful madness, is also the cruelest event in all of big time sports. The Astros can’t lose an entire season in one night. But that’s the Big Dance, as fickle as the stock market caught up in a run. One day you have everything, the next night it’s all done. All gone.

The hometown Final Four talk, the national buzz, the chance to write their own ending. . . all down in a hailstorm of Miami points.

“I hated to see Marcus Sasser’s career end this way tonight. Heartbreaking thinking of all the things he went through.” — Jim Nantz

Kelvin Sampson puts that 33-4 up on the corner of the whiteboard, underlines it once. But that’s not what the most talented team Sampson has coached at Houston, this group of players, is going to remember most from this season. The moments, many of them off the court, and the time they spent together is what sticks out.

Jarace Walker brings up the night that Marcus Sasser’s car broke down and these two future pro players, one the recruit none of the other big schools wanted, the other everyone’s McDonald’s All-American, found themselves walking in the dark. Together.

Just talking and walking. Walking and talking. And laughing.

“It was late,” Walker says, smiling for the first time probably since that final buzzer. “We had to walk in the dark all the way back.. . But it was a good little walk. We just have so many moments together.”

This special University of Houston team couldn’t give itself the ending it wanted, the ending so many in the city wanted for it. But it sure had some moments. If you think that’s a failure, why even follow sports? Seasons are more than endings for even the most talented teams. Even when all you feel is sadness at the last final buzzer of your year.

De Beers


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