Culture / Sporting Life

Jamal Shead, UH Leave No Doubt With Fearless Takedown of No. 1 Arizona — Inside a Proud Cougar Night With Tilman Fertitta, Hakeem Olajuwon and the Most Together Team Ever

Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson Salutes All Those Cougar Fans In the Most Perfect Way Possible

BY // 03.25.22

SAN ANTONIO — When it is over, when the team that keeps defying the limits others place on it has taken every last bit of fight out of a No. 1 seed, Kelvin Sampson marches over to a large section of red clad, now hoarse University of Houston fans. Sampson just starts clapping for those fans — and pounding his fist into his hand to their renewed roars. Soon the UH assistant coaches and all the players are joining him too.

This is how you celebrate toppling the second ranked team in America — convincingly. This is how you enjoy moving one win from a improbable Final Four repeat. Together.

All over the AT&T Center, Cougars are jumping around and hugging each other, having turned this NBA arena into a land of red. It’s almost like a scene straight out of a movie, almost too perfect to believe. But that’s what this Houston team does best, turning belief into reality.

UH 72, Arizona 60. And a date with Big East champion Villanova at 5 pm Saturday night with a Final Four berth on the line.

What’s left to doubt now? Who can possibly not see how good these Coogs are now?

“It means a lot to Cougar fans,” a giddy University of Houston president Renu Khator says from her seat in the first row in the stands. “It means a lot to Cougars everywhere. This team is incredible. They’re magical.

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“We are in the Elite Eight! I can’t believe it.”

Fabian White Jr. can. So can Jamal Shead, the fearless 19-year-old point guard, and Kyler Edwards, the steady veteran whose 40 minutes from making a Final Four with two different Texas teams. Josh Carlton, the UConn castaway whose offensive rebounding absolutely terrorizes Arizona, can too. Same for Ramon Walker Jr., Reggie Chaney and J’Wan Roberts, the bench crew that gives Kelvin Sampson’s depth-challenged team crucial minute after crucial minute against the Wildcats.

They all believed. They always have.

“Not everybody can handle adversity,” UH assistant coach Quannas White tells PaperCity. “. . .  This team has been through a l0t. But all of those kids in that locker room, they just kind of banded together. And they really fight for one another. And they know if they lose, that’s it.

“And this team is not ready for its season to end.”

Not even close. These now 32-5 Cougars don’t go crazy celebrating after this one. There are plenty of on-court hugs after the final buzzer, but there is none of the wild giddiness that a big underdog knocking off a No. 1 seed might exhibit. That’s because Fabian White and Friends expected to win this game. They planned on it. They executed a game plan that they knew would work. And they took it to Arizona all night, leading for 39 minutes and 28 seconds of a 40 minute game. Against a No. 1 seed with at least two high level NBA players.

What’s left to doubt now? Who can possibly not see how good these Coogs are now?

“It was amazing,” UH Board of Regents chairman Tilman Fertitta says. “What’s special about it is to beat a No. 1 seed. Even last year, people said we had an easy road (to the Final Four). This year, how good is U of H? When you beat the No. 1 seed and you beat them by 12 points. . .”

It’s that kind of night, one where UH’s billionaire backer is high fiving fans in the stands. Fertitta is sitting next to Khator as usual, but there is no bad seat in the building on this night if you are a Cougar fan. Not with what’s happening on the floor. Not with Carlton grabbing five offensive rebounds, making imposing 7-foot-1 Arizona center Christian Koloko look a step slow. Not with Kyler Edwards, Taze Moore and even Ramon Walker hounding NBA Lottery pick to be Bennedict Mathurin into a 4 for 14 shooting night. Not with Edwards hitting four triples in the second half, each seemingly bigger than the last, in a 19 point, five rebound, three assist night. Not with Roberts and Chaney, the sometimes forgotten big men reserves, combining for 10 points and five rebounds off the bench.

And certainly not with Jamal Shead taking firm control of this game, scoring 15 of his 21 points in the second half, adding six assists, four rebounds and two steals. The former emergency point guard has grown more than any Cougar this season, transforming into the type of point guard that can lead a national championship team before everyone’s eyes.

“Now, he’s taken this team by the throat and he’s got them going and playing at a high level right now,” Quannas White says. “He’s become a big-time leader. Big-time leader. . . He just refuses to lose.”

Almost fittingly, the teenager who drives this UH show is the last player to get on the bus back to the hotel on this night. Jamal Shead’s learned how to do things at his own pace. With ferocity.

There are lions who are more fearful than Jamal Shead.

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team defeated the SMU Mustangs
University of Houston point guard Jamal Shead knows how to keep the ball moving. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

“Just the confidence my guys put in me,” Jamal Shead tells PaperCity when I ask where his fearlessness comes from. “We all go through so much together. We’ve been through a lot this year. We’re battle tested. I just feel like there’s nothing we can’t do together.”

What’s left to doubt now? Who can possibly not see how good these Coogs are now?

Jamal Shead and Kyler Edwards Make Fabian White’s Visions Come True

Kelvin Sampson’s team has been talking about winning the national time since this group first met for summer conditioning. When Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, arguably their two most talented players, went down with injuries in December, almost everyone else figured they were done. But these Cougars never did stop talking about winning that “natty” as Fabian White, their graduate senior player leader, likes it call it.

There is no time to rest now. Quannas White, one of the assistants, is carrying a container of food to the bus, knowing that he and Kellen Sampson are in for a long night of scouting Jay Wright’s Villanova team.

Now, UH is halfway to the six NCAA Tournament wins that a national title takes. Now, they’re one of the last eight teams standing in America. Now, Kelvin Sampson is one victory away from both his third Final Four and the 700th win of his coaching career.

“They’re bought into the game plan tonight,” Kelvin Sampson says of one of his most elite and unlikely teams. “And they’re not afraid of anybody.”

“What’s special about it is to beat a No. 1 seed. Even last year, people said we had an easy road (to the Final Four). This year, how good is U of H? When you beat the No. 1 seed and you beat them by 12 points. . .” — Tilman Fertitta

It’s about time for the rest of college basketball to start fearing these Cougars. Arizona pulls within two points of UH several times in the second half. But Shead, Edwards and Co. never buckle. Never blink. Never doubt they’re winning this game. Never lose sight of what is really on the line.

More together time. Sports seasons are fleeting — and these together Coogs don’t want to let this one go.

“Fabian a senior,” forward J’Wan Roberts says. “Kyler, Josh, Taze. We don’t want this to be their last game. We want to be playing on Monday night (in the national championship game). Cutting the nets down for them.”

Hakeem Olajuwon certainly believes. One of the 10 greatest basketball players of all time could not win a national title at UH despite coming so close. But Hakeem is pulling for these Cougars in San Antonio, noting how he sees some similarities with those never say die Rockets teams that he powered to two championships.

“This is a very special team,” Olajuwon says.

What’s left to doubt now? Who can possibly not see how good these Coogs are now?

There are so many old Cougars who are caught up in this together team, this joy ride of belief, toughness, game planning and fearlessness. Otis Birdsong and Elvin Hayes are in the arena, watching with proud eyes. So are former Coogs and current NFL players Tyus Bowser and Greg Ward Jr.

This is a Houston night — and then some. With UH fans answering director of basketball operations Lauren Sampson’s call to take over this San Antonio arena and make it beyond red. With the University of Houston taking its rightful spot, right up there with college basketball’s uber elite programs.

“When I look at them talk about the blue bloods, we’ve got everything they’ve got,” UH athletic director Chris Pezman tells PaperCity. “We’ve got the history. We’ve got the success now. We’ve got everything in place.

“We’ve got the Hall of Fame coach.”

Kelvin Sampson’s World

Kelvin Sampson, UH’s 66-year-0ld basketball lifer, is at the height of his powers. He and his staff will come up with a game plan that holds one of the highest scoring teams in the country to 60 points, more than 24 points below Arizona’s average. The game will end with Edwards hitting another big three to push the lead to nine with 1:35 remaining, with Taze Moore throwing a three quarters court pass to J’Wan Roberts for the put away slams of all put away slams with 35 seconds left.

“It felt great,” Roberts says, breaking into a big grin when asked about the dunk. “That was great. Just great.”

Edwards runs over to grab Shead at the buzzer, wrapping up the young point guard in a hug. These two guards both played 38 of the 40 minutes, grabbing this game together.

“I knew we was going to do it,” Fabian White says, smiling. “In the summer we was breaking it down saying, ‘National championship.’ We all knew. Just some people didn’t know.”

Everyone’s starting to get it now.

“We don’t care about the respect,” Edwards tells PaperCity as he walks towards the bus. “They’ve got to play us regardless.”

The together team is making its own magic. No quarter asked. Or given.

There are lions who are more fearful than Jamal Shead.

What’s left to doubt now? Who can possibly not see how good these Coogs are now?

Kelvin Sampson pounds his fist into his hand when he salutes all those Houston fans in San Antonio for a reason. The fist is a symbol for five guys coming together as one, for a team that defies the doubters as one.

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