Culture / Sporting Life

LJ Cryer & J’Wan Roberts Answer Kelvin Sampson’s Challenge — Why This 17-2 Houston Team Is Emerging as the Most Determined Sampson Squad Yet

The First Big 12 Road Win Ever For UH Basketball Is Much More Than a Historic Marker

BY // 01.24.24

PROVO, Utah — Kelvin Sampson may be in the land of milk (there are several different varieties of the white stuff available at the concession stands of BYU’s impressive arena, along with more licorice than most people see in two lifetimes), a land where he jokes he better not say hell because doing it in this religious mountain town would upset his late mother (so Houston’s coach spells it out instead), but he’s still Kelvin. Demanding. Instinctive as a blood hound for what his players need in the moment. Unrelenting in his expectations. So when J’Wan Roberts commits a foul that allows BYU to pull within 66-63, Sampson lays into the senior forward who’s fighting to give everything he can on a hurting knee.

Roberts’ University of Houston teammates notice it. But they also notice how Roberts reacts.

He promptly hits a hook in the lane to stretch the advantage back to five (only Roberts’ second basket of the entire night), then buries a free throw that gives UH the lead for good with 61 seconds left after BYU comes back to tie it and intentionally fouls him. Roberts gives Sampson what he wants. He gives everything he possibly can, even more than he thinks he can. He provides what Houston absolutely needs.

“It means a lot,” UH guard LJ Cryer tells PaperCity in a side hallway of the Marriott Center later of Roberts’ little late gut check flurry. “Especially because, right before he hit that hook, Coach got on him in the huddle. Hard. And he went out there and responded. . .

“Today, I felt like everyone just responded to Coach really well.”

This is why No. 4 Houston’s 75-68 win over No. 21 BYU is more than just one Big 12 road win, more than a milestone marker (the very first Big 12 road win ever for this UH program, but not Sampson). This is one to build on. One that shows every bit of the resounding resolve, unflinching fight and dogged determination of what is looking more and more like a special Houston team. One that is bonded by a complete belief in what their Hall of Fame worthy coach is telling them.

For a hobbled J’Wan Roberts isn’t the only Cougar who responds to Sampson on this night in Utah. LJ Cryer, the Baylor transfer who’s already grown so much at Houston, takes a Sampson second half challenge to be more aggressive to heart, scoring 14 of his game-high 23 points in the final 20 minutes. Emanuel Sharp answers Sampson’s frustration about his rebounding and overall play in the prior game (UH blowout win no matter to this coach) by grabbing a game-high nine boards in 25 minutes and finding other ways to score against BYU with his outside shot still off. Sharp gets to the free throw line nine times and adds two steals.

Kelvin Sampson puts Cryer, Roberts and Sharp all on blast. And they all answer his call.

That is the mark of a team with an uncommon determination to do whatever it takes to win. This now 17-2 (4-2 Big 12) team isn’t Kelvin Sampson’s most talented Houston squad. That team last year with super freshman Jarace Walker, fellow first round NBA pick Marcus Sasser, the ridiculously talented Tramon Mark — and also still Shead, Roberts and Sharp — blows this one away in terms of pure talent. But this team has something else, something extra that just may make it the one that gives Kelvin Sampson his best shot at that national championship moment yet.

A next level fight to go with its talent that few other teams — even really good ones — can match.

“(Houston) played a really tough game,” says BYU coach Mark Pope, whose three-point bombing team will give someone fits in the NCAA Tournament. “Which is who they are. They’re just the definition of toughness in college basketball.”

University of Houston Cougars beat the Penn Quakers at the Fertitta Center, Saturday December 13, 2023
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson is never shy about demanding more from players like shooting guard Emanuel Sharp. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

It takes a next level toughness to withstand 16,553 devoutly loud fans packed into an arena that seems to stretch straight up. Especially when you squander every bit of a 13 point lead. Houston does that — and then still ends the game on a 7-0 run once BYU ties it. Shead, Cryer and Co. hold BYU scoreless over the last two minutes and 15 seconds. Shead, Cryer and Sharp combine to go six for six from the free throw line in the last 41 seconds.

That’s composure through adversity. That’s relentless resolve. That’s next level toughness. Together. In the fight. Always.

“Man, it felt like an NCAA Tournament game,” UH assistant coach K.C. Beard tells PaperCity. “And it does. Because you’re going to have that lead and a team comes back and can you be strong enough and stay together through that.”

This Houston team is proving it can. While this will forever officially be the first Big 12 road win for the University of Houston basketball program, it feels like some other wins this team has already had. It feels like the win at Xavier when Shead and Cryer found a way in a wild environment where a dozen Xavier students got ejected for throwing things down from the stands and the refs seemed determined to set an all-time foul calling record. It feels like the win over Utah in Charleston where these Cougars took the best that a now 14-5 Pac-12 team could throw at them and just kept outdoing it.

Together. In the fight. Always.

With Shead and Cryer showing the way.

LJ Cryer Meets Another Big Moment

Houston lost two excruciatingly close Big 12 road games earlier this month at Iowa State and TCU when LJ Cryer endured his two worst shooting games of the season, going a combined 2 for 13 from 3. Good luck to any future UH opponents banking on that happening again. For Cryer’s teammates will tell you he is built for these high-pressure situations.

“That’s what he’s here for,” Shead says of his backcourt partner after putting up 16 points and four assists of his own. “He’s a big-time player. A big-time moment guy. I try to defer to him because he lives for those moments.”

Cryer drains dagger after dagger in the second half, looking like the calmest person in the hopping building with every flick of his wrist. Cryer’s five triples help Houston finish with 10 3-pointers made, only one less than 3-pointer obsessed BYU (Daryl Morey would love this BYU team) makes despite taking 15 more 3-point attempts than Kelvin Sampson’s team. For Houston to only be outscored by three points from three by BYU is an unbelievable win, one that speaks to how prepared the nation’s fourth ranked team is to contest every look from distance.

BYU takes 38 of its 59 total shots from behind the line and only hits 11 of them (28.9 percent). But these Cougars from Utah never stop firing. Luckily for Houston, neither does Cryer.

“LJ in particular,” Beard says. “He’s the one that didn’t play great the last two road games. For him to be what — 7 for 14 from the field — that just speaks to him and the work that he’s put in.”

“It means a lot. Especially because, right before (J’Wan Roberts) hit that hook, Coach got on him in the huddle. Hard. And he went out there and responded. . . Today, I felt like everyone just responded to Coach really well.” — UH guard LJ Cryer

University of Houston Cougars defeated the Texas A&M University Aggies during the Halal Guys Showcase in the Toyota Center
University of Houston guard LJ Cryer is one of the purest shooters and scorers in America. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Cryer’s post practice work with UH associate head coach Quannas White can seem never ending. But sometimes it takes more than work. Sometimes it takes a nudge — or a demand — from one Kelvin Sampson.

“I grabbed LJ at one point and told him, he’s got to be more aggressive looking for his shot,” Sampson says. “And we found him a couple of times on daggers.”

LJ Cryer hears his head coach. He hears his point guard too. And he finds more shots.

“It means a lot just to have that confidence from your head coach,” Cryer says. “It gives myself confidence to go out there and just play my game and be aggressive.”

Cryer is joined by sixth man Damian Dunn, who adds two big threes and 10 points of his own, and sometime eighth man Mylik Wilson, who hits the biggest three of his UH career. This is a Houston team that feeds off one another. One whose players seem happier talking about each other rather than their own individual feats. Shead loves to talk about LJ Cryer. Heck, Shead is almost Cryer’s own personal hype man. Cryer is excited to talk about J’Wan.

“We’ve got a bond,” Cryer says. “And I think it shows in these close games.”

Together. In the fight. Always. Listening to their coach.

“Man, it felt like an NCAA Tournament game. And it does. Because you’re going to have that lead and a team comes back and can you be strong enough and stay together through that.” — UH assistant coach K.C. Beard

This is not Kelvin Sampson’s most talented team. But it just might be his most determined and demand embracing together one. That goes a long way, Maybe even all the way to Glendale, Arizona for another Final Four. You get the sense that Kelvin Sampson knows this group is something different too.

He is as relaxed as you’ll ever see him after a big game once the postgame press conference is over, He takes pictures on the court with friends from prior coaching stops and Houston, anyone his wife Karen asks him to pose with, really. He kids around with Dave Rose, the former co-captain of Phi Slama Jama who became a still beloved BYU coach.

When the players answer almost all his demands, respond to every call-out challenge, it’s a very good night. One to build on.