Culture / Sporting Life

Jamal Shead’s Incredible Fight Helps No. 1 Houston Believe Through NCAA Tournament Injury Nightmare — UH’s Will to Win Isn’t In Doubt Despite Auburn’s Glee

With Its Best Player Out and Its MVP Hobbling, Kelvin Sampson's Program Faces a New Challenge Head On

BY // 03.17.23

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — University of Houston lifeline point guard Jamal Shead gets both his knees wrapped up in plastic before he heads to the bus and what many will paint as a nightmarish uncertain future for one of the No. 1 seeds in this NCAA Tournament. Kelvin Sampson’s team is beaten up, with surviving and advancing taking on new meaning in what turns into a 63-52 victory over Northern Kentucky in an arena still filled with a lot of suddenly gleefully Auburn fans.

“Great job!” a guy in an Auburn polo with a cup still in his hand, calls down to the Northern Kentucky players as they leave the court. “Houston didn’t want any part of what you gave them.”

Yes, Auburn fans are suddenly feeling it. And why not? They don’t know what they’re dealing with in this Houston program. One that’s been here before in many ways. Same injury nightmare, different year?

Houston’s best player (All-American guard Marcus Sasser) reaggravated his troublesome groin injury and couldn’t play a minute in the second half. Its Most Valuable Player (Shead) hurt the knee that’s been nagging at him for a while further in the first half and played the entire 20 minutes of the second half. With it barking at him all the way.

But losing would hurt Jamal Shead even more than the hyperextended knee. And there he is rising up to hit the step back jumper with 2:25 left that gives the No. 1 seed the last bit of cushion it will need to put Northern Kentucky to bed.

“Honestly, we just needed a bucket,” Shead tells PaperCity. “And I had the ball in my hands.”

At that moment, Jamal Shead’s knee isn’t the issue. His relentless guts are. His want to is what screams through as he rises up on that bad knee.

Shead certainly made UH athletic director Chris Pezman believe in that moment.

“You see a kid like Jamal,” Pezman says outside of the Houston locker room. “He’s just… He’s everything you want. As a student athlete. And as a young person. He’s going to help us all be in a better place in the future.”

In the immediate future, Kelvin Sampson’s 32-3 team must face No. 9 seed Auburn, an SEC team with plenty of talent, in a defacto second round NCAA Tournament road game, just a few hours from Auburn’s campus. It’s not exactly what a No. 1 seed expects in its second game of the Big Dance.

Sampson is still trying to come to grips with what he saw Thursday night, with Northern Kentucky grabbing 18 offensive rebounds to UH’s 11. With Norse coach Darrin Horn’s matchup zone creating all sorts of issues for Houston’s offense. With the Cougars turning it over 17 times with Shead (13 points, six assists, six turnovers) fighting to gut it on one good knee, often not himself.

“Northern Kentucky was tougher than we were tonight,” Sampson says on the interview platform. “And that is not easy for me to say.”

Kelvin Sampson doesn’t have to say that often. But in this One vs. 16 matchup he does.

“Feel like they wanted it more,” UH forward J’Wan Roberts says. “We have to own up to that and get better.”

And come up with a way to beat an Auburn team that smells blood in the water in a road NCAA Tournament game. No, it’s not what a No. 1 seed expects.

But it’s the reality Houston faces. And the best road team in college basketball will need to take it all on without feeling sorry for itself. There isn’t time for that with a 6:10 pm Saturday tipoff looming. That’s also not what this team, and Sampson’s program, is all about.

“This program is rooted in the right stuff,” UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “That toughness remains. We’re still Houston. Those guys are a big part of who we are and they’re going to fight like hell to get as healthy as they can by Saturday. But we’re still Houston.

“It doesn’t say a particular name on the front of our jersey. It says Houston. This team is 33-2. Coach says it all the time. The thing this team is best at is winning. Now we’ve got to figure out a way to win Saturday and get to next week.”

No. 1 Houston Finds a Way, Jamal Shead Keeps Battling

Against 16th seed Northern Kentucky that meant a big game from super freshman Jarace Walker, who steadies the Coogs with a game-high 16 points (on six for eight shooting from the field), six rebounds and a defensive impact that goes far beyond the numbers. It also means two huge 3-pointers and 10 points overall off the bench from freshman guard Emanuel Sharp.

“It was tough,” Sharp says of losing Sasser and seeing Shead not close to 100 percent. “But we prepare for this all season. Coach Samps had us ready.”

Now, the UH coaching staff that helped show the way for a injury riddled Houston team to make it all the way to the Elite Eight last season has about 40 hours to come up with a way to beat Auburn in a road game on Saturday night. Some of that will mean more of ball handling role for Tramon Mark, the third member of UH’s elite starting backcourt.

“And he can,” Kellen Sampson says of Mark’s role perhaps redefining into more of a playmaker. “That’s the one thing. It’s not like we’re asking somebody who can’t. He can play make and handle the ball. And he’s done it all year. Especially in the big games.

“That’s what Saturday is. . . Everybody’s going to have to do more.”

Marcus Sasser came back — and got hurt again. An all-too familiar scenario is playing out for No. 1 seed Houston in the NCAA Tournament with the First-Team All-American guard reaggravating his groin injury after returning to the starting lineup and Shead dealing with a knee injury of his own.  The Cougars still survived and advanced — against a 16th seed — without Sasser in the second half, but this night doesn’t exactly inspire Houston hometown Final Four confidence.

Then again, Kelvin Sampson and Co. never acted like anything would be easy. It never is in March. And it gets significantly tougher now.

“This team is 33-2. Coach says it all the time. The thing this team is best at is winning. Now we’ve got to figure out a way to win Saturday and get to next week.” — UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson

Jay Bilas UH forward Jarace Walker knows how to finish. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
UH forward Jarace Walker knows how to finish. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Against Northern Kentucky, Jarace Walker is one of the most determined players on the floor. As well as the most talented. The way the 6-foot-8 24o-pound freshman scrambles back to contest a 3-point shot at a crucial moment, forcing an air ball, says even more than his emphatic blocks do.

“He came out aggressive,” Mark says of Walker. “We’re going to need him to be aggressive. . . That’s a big lift knowing you have a player who can make plays like that. A lot of the times, that’s a big lift for us. Knowing that he can recover and help us out on defense whenever the other team thinks it’s getting an open shot.”

It isn’t pretty, but it’s a win. A Houston kind of win in some ways, mainly the fight to the end. One that has the player who hits the biggest shot getting his knees wrapped up afterwards.

“It’s been hurting a little bit, but I kind of injured it more today,” Shead says when I ask him about the injury. After pausing for a beat, Shead adds: “It’s good. I’ll be good.”

This is Houston. It’s never been about all the highlight plays this team can rack up. Or any kind of red carpet to the Final Four. At its core, Kelvin Sampson’s program isn’t about that.

“Feel like they wanted it more. We have to own up to that and get better.” — UH forward J’Wan Roberts

Arizona, the Pac 12 tournament champion and a No. 2 seed is already gone, swept out of the tournament by Princeton on day one. Virginia, the ACC regular season champion and a No. 4 seed, is also already done. Houston is battered, beaten up and tired. But Kelvin Sampson’s team will show up on Saturday night.

“There’s some really, really good teams that had special years that are chartering themselves home,” Kellen Sampson says. “We didn’t. We’re not. We’re in the fight still. It got proven last year. We’re never out of the fight.

“We’re never done.”