Culture / Sporting Life

How a Garbage Time Final Four Encounter Between Jamal Shead & LJ Cryer Still Fuels the Best Backcourt In America With Duke Looming

Shead Surprised Cryer With His Intensity Back Then, But Their Story Is Only Growing With March Meaning

BY // 03.24.24

MEMPHIS — The night before Senior Day is a sacred tradition in a Kelvin Sampson program. Everyone gathers at Kelvin and Karen Sampson’s house and shares their memories, only team personnel allowed. The memories are often heartfelt, sometimes funny. And every once in a while, they carry an extra special meaning. Like when Houston point guard Jamal Shead stood up this year and talked about LJ Cryer and he both getting into that 2021 Final Four game between Houston and Baylor in garbage time.

With the game long since decided in Baylor’s favor, no one else paid much attention, but for these two kids from Texas it meant plenty.

“He talked about how when we were in the Final Four we got in for like the last two minutes and we were guarding each other,” Cryer says. “We’ve been knowing each other since we were little kids, so that was a fun moment. . .

“Now we’re here on the same team. . .”

Shead’s message on that night before Senior Day came through loud and clear to Cryer, who transferred from Baylor to team up with Shead in Houston for this season. For this March really. Three years after that Final Four encounter, Cryer and Shead have a chance to do the Final Four again. As starters, together in the same backcourt, making it happen.

Who would have imagined that? Except, maybe these two.

“It’s about grabbing the opportunity,” Cryer says. And not letting go.

Now, two wins into their first and last NCAA Tournament run together, these buddies know it’s up to them to make it happen against a Duke program that is one of the brand names in college basketball. If Houston is going to make the Elite Eight for the third time under Kelvin Sampson, Shead and Cryer must show the way against a Blue Devils backcourt powered by senior guard Jeremy Roach and true freshman guard Jared McCain, a future NBA player who can go off at any time like some version of a basketball Incredible Hulk.

Shead, the best defensive guard in college basketball, will likely draw the main defensive assignment on Roach. Cryer will have to show his own defensive improvement (he’s made a huge leap on that end of the floor at Houston under Kelvin Sampson) while providing plenty of scoring punch.

It is too simplistic to declare May the Best Backcourt Win. Then again. . .

“We’ve got one of the best backcourts in the country,” UH associate head coach Quannas White tells PaperCity. “Like Coach say, he wouldn’t trade any of our guys for no other guards in the country.”

“. . . It’s one thing to have guys with experience. It’s another thing to have guys that focused on winning and playing the right way and unselfishly. That’s what makes this team really good.”

The #3 Houston Cougars defeated the Texas Longhorns in an 82-61 wire-to-wire win behind 26 points from guard L.J. Cryer . The Cougars used a big second half to hold Texas to a season-low scoring mark at the Fertitta Center
Jamal Shead impacts games in all sorts of ways for the University of Houston. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

For Shead and Cryer, it all goes back to that 2021 Final Four game, when they got in with only a few minutes left. Shead definitely caught Cryer off guard at that moment. Which they both laugh about today.

“Him not realizing that I was coming in to play as hard as possible,” Shead says when I ask what he remembers most from that fateful Final Four encounter. “And they were already winning, so I just came in and tried to carry our culture and play hard.”

Which meant that Cryer suddenly faced a whirling dervish who wasn’t about to give him any room to breathe.

“He came in there blazing fast,” Cryer laughs. “Like he wasn’t sitting on the bench for 40 minutes. And we were up by a good amount, so I came in like ‘Let’s just get through it.’ ”

Jamal Shead, then just a freshman like Cryer, wasn’t having any of that. He made Cryer sweat for those two minutes of garbage time. Shead ends up hitting a layup, grabbing two rebounds and drawing a shooting foul in those two minutes. Cryer fires up a three that misses, doesn’t do a whole lot else.

Both vividly recall those final two minutes that everyone else didn’t just forget, but never paid attention in the first place, in a 78-59 Baylor win. That sequence sparked something though.

“He came in there blazing fast. Like he wasn’t sitting on the bench for 40 minutes. And we were up by a good amount, so I came in like ‘Let’s just get through it.’ ” — LJ Cryer on Jamal Shead in the last two minutes of the 2021 Final Four semi

N0w Shead and Cryer are determined to get back to another Final Four together, to grab the moments that count in the most important games of all. It’s not about One Shining Moment as much as it’s Making the Biggest Moments Theirs.

Jamal Shead vs. Wade Taylor IV Goes Houston’s Way

No. 1 seed Houston team’s first real test of this NCAA Tournament — that 100-95 overtime win over Texas A&M — put their All-American point guard even more centerstage if that’s possible. Shead vs. Wade Taylor IV got talked about like Joe Dumars vs. Michael Jordan back in the day.

“I’m not sure he looks at one particular game as a challenge,” White says of Shead. “I think every game he goes into, he’s locked in and focused. Jamal’s goal is to end up in Arizona (for the Final Four).

“And so whoever’s in front of us that’s what’s he’s focused on.”

LJ Cryer once stood in front of Jamal Shead in a Final Four. He felt a mini version of the fury back then. When few noticed. And fewer cared. Even Jim Nantz, who made it to Memphis as a fan for that epic UH win. over Texas A&M, was trying to sum up the Baylor-UH game and get to the second Final Four semifinal when Shead and Cryer finally entered that 2021 Final Four game.

It seemed to mean little. But it’s continued to matter a lot to Shead and Cryer. And it will mean a whole lot more if they can get back to the Final Four this April. Together.

“For us playing each other then to playing together now?” Shead says. “It’s awesome. It’s a testament to have far we’ve both came. And I’m glad we’ve come to this point in our lives, this point in our careers — together.”

From garbage time foes to creating the best backcourt in America. That’s Jamal Shead and LJ Cryer. Almost working as one.

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