Culture / Sporting Life

Inside The Tramon Mark “Don’t Worry” Game — How Houston Pulled Off the Sweetest NCAA Tournament Comeback and UH’s Elite Third Guard Lifted the Doubts

Auburn Wanted No Part Of Mark's Chill Fire — and Another Signature Win Meant a Game of Peek-a-Boo for Kelvin Sampson

BY // 03.19.23

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When Jamal Shead picks up his fourth foul, he is stressing, scared University of Houston’s dream season could be slipping away. UH All-American guard Marcus Sasser is already on the bench with four fouls and a still bothersome groin injury. But, in that moment, with Houston clinging to a 54-51 lead, Tramon Mark slides over to Shead with a simple message.

Don’t worry.

“He literally told me once I got my fourth foul to just not worry about it,” Shead says chuckling. “He knew it was time for him to take over the game. And he did.”

Almost always one of the coolest dudes in any room he enters, Tramon Mark’s ever chill turned into straight fire in the NCAA Tournament when the team he loves needed it most. With both UH’s best player (Sasser) and its lifeline MVP (Shead) physically hurting and out of the game with four fouls each, the smooth 6-foot-5 man from Dickinson who can tower over lesser guards (in talent and stature) went to work.

Mark scores 20 of his career-high 26 points in the second half, fueling one of the signature wins of a Kelvin Sampson era that just seems to keep adding new ones. Down by 10 points at halftime, often looking out of sorts on offense and sometimes completely lost on defense, with everyone outside of their locker room penciling them in as the latest No. 1 seed that’s going down, these Cougars find a way.

On The Mark. And bound for the sweetest of Sweet Sixteens.

Kelvin Sampson’s team completely flips the game in the second half, overwhelming Auburn 50 to 23 in the final 20 minutes for a 81-64 win. With its two best players not close to 100 percent. And not even on the floor for one long crucial stretch. This is the stuff sports movies are made of. Pardon Matt Ryan and the 2017 Atlanta Falcons if they even started having horrible flashbacks.

“We’re built for adversity,” Sampson says, his back against a wall with the NCAA Tournament logos all over it. “Look where we were in 2014 (when Sampson first arrived at Houston). What’s adversity?”

To most, it’s a 10 point deficit at halftime for a No. 1 seed. Many thought that this Houston team was toast.

Instead, this NCAA Tournament road game ends with all those Auburn fans sitting in silence, drowned out by the loyal red UH contingent gleefully chanting “Sweet 16! Sweet 16! Sweet 16!” UH forward J’Wan Roberts blows kisses to the blue-and-orange clad crowd as he makes a slow walk off the floor, soaking in every bit of the silence and the moment.

This No. 1 team that’s felt the pressure of that hometown Houston Final Four possibility all season (and constantly gets reminded of it) has not allowed itself to savor all that many moments this season. But this comeback, this display of heart and all-out fight, is certainly one to revel in.

“Just because the fans were talking crazy before the game and going into halftime,” Roberts says. “I didn’t really say too much. But just let them know: See you next year.”

This now 33-2 Houston team is the one that is dancing on, moving into the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight NCAA Tournament (2019, 2021, 2022 and now 2023; COVID cancelled the 2020 tourney). This is what Kelvin Sampson’s program does. It wins in March no matter the circumstances — and dodges the upsets that haunt so many big-time programs (see defending national champion Kansas, Purdue, Duke, Arizona and Virginia already this first NCAA Tournament weekend alone).

This kind of thing doesn’t happen every day. It doesn’t happen everywhere. It’s a Houston thing. And it’s reason enough for Kelvin Sampson, UH’s 67-year-old basketball lifer of a coach, to join his college kid players in dancing in the locker room.

“He did a little dancey dance,” Shead says. “His little two hand thing. He got to it.”

And why not? This is a Kelvin Sampson program win in every sense, a testament to the never-ending fight he’s shot into the veins of this basketball program. In a quiet moment after the game’s over and all the interviews are done, Karen Sampson, the matriarch of this entire thing, the coach’s wife who’s always been more than just a coach’s wife, corrals the entire Sampson family together in a back hallway of Legacy arena for a family photo.

She dubs it “The annual Sweet 16 Family Photo.”

“With the emphasis on annual,” UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson, Karen and Kelvin Sampson’s proud son, adds with a smile.

Karen Sampson (center, next to her husband Kelvin Sampson) gathers the whole Sampson family together for what she dubs “The annual Sweet 16 family photo” in a back hallway at Legacy Arena after the comeback win over Auburn. (Photo by Chris Baldwin)
Karen Sampson (center, next to her husband Kelvin Sampson) gathers the whole Sampson family together for what she dubs “The annual Sweet 16 family photo” in a back hallway at Legacy Arena after the comeback win over Auburn. (Photo by Chris Baldwin)

Moments later, Kelvin Sampson is playing peek-a-boo with his 5-year-old granddaughter Maisy Jade and 2 and 1/2 year old grandson Kylen Sampson in the black curtains found throughout the backstage areas of the arena (the NCAA loves black curtains). This is how the guy that Jim Nantz calls “the best coach in college basketball” celebrates big wins these days.

With a spirited game of peek-a-boo.

Kelvin Sampson’s Calm Halftime Locker Room

What a difference a halftime can make. Well, many no doubt picture Kelvin Sampson screaming at his team with UH down 41-31 to No. 9 seed Auburn, that is not how it went down on this unforgettable Saturday night in Alabama. Instead, Sampson’s players describe a largely calm halftime, one in which the players refocus and a few key strategic adjustments are made.

“There was no yelling,” Sasser says of halftime. “Coach told us to fix our attitudes. We didn’t want to go home.”

“Nobody really said nothing,” Mark says of the break. “We knew what we had to do. Then when Coach came in, told us what we needed to do, that was it. We caught on fire.”

One adjustment Sampson made was getting UH out of relying on its set plays, turning instead to spreading the floor and creating isolation scenarios for his gifted one-on-one players. Especially Tramon Mark.

“We stopped running so many sets because they were kind of in our sets,” Mark tells PaperCity. “We just stopped running so many sets and just started spacing the floor out and doing what we needed to do. Because they couldn’t really guard us one on one.”

Auburn especially couldn’t guard Tramon Mark one on one. Before long, Auburn’s undersized guard trio of Wendell Green Jr. (5-foot-11), K.D. Johnson (6-foot) and Zep Jasper (6-foot-1) are reduced to swiping at the player that Kellen Sampson calls Mid-Range Mark as he drives into the lane for pull-up jumper after pull-up jumper.

“They were getting handsy,” Mark says. “So I knew I had them.”

Those handsy Auburn guards will send Mark to the free throw eight times in the second half. Mark hits all eight. And six of the nine shots from the field he takes in the final 20 minutes. Fruits in a blender are less shaken up than Tramon Mark leaves Auburn’s guards.

“He didn’t want no screens,” Roberts tells PaperCity of how Mark attacked. “He didn’t want no nothing. He just wanted to iso. And that’s what he’s the best at.”

Well, that and staying just as chill and calm as he usually is in pressure situations that make even many great players feel the weight of the moment. Another of Tramon Mark’s nicknames is T-March, a moniker he picked up as a true freshman when he stunned Memphis at the buzzer with a half court shot late in the regular season and then pulled off the rebound put back that allowed UH to beat Rutgers in the second round and advance all the way to the 2021 Final Four in that Indianapolis bubble.

“He literally told me once I got my fourth foul to just not worry about it. He knew it was time for him to take over the game. And he did.” — Jamal Shead on Tramon Mark’s message

UH guard Tramon Mark did whatever he wanted against Auburn’s smaller guards, scoring 20 of his career-high 26 points in the second half in Houston’s comeback NCAA Tournament win.
UH guard Tramon Mark did whatever he wanted against Auburn’s smaller guards, scoring 20 of his career-high 26 points in the second half in Houston’s comeback NCAA Tournament win. (@UHCougarMBK)

This special Houston team — the most talented team Kelvin Sampson has coached in this, his last coaching stop — has plenty of heroes on this night. You don’t get to 33 wins without having a roster of guys who get it done. And on this night, Marcus Sasser puts up 22 points, hits five huge triples, despite being “60 percent” of himself according to Sampson or “70 percent” by his own estimation. Then there’s super freshman Jarace Walker putting up a stat line that would make Hakeem Olajuwon himself smile (seven points, 10 rebounds, two assists, six blocks and co team-high plus 18 plus-minus rating). J’Wan Roberts adds five blocks and seven rebounds of his own, while Jamal Shead contributes 10 points, five assists and only one turnover gutting it out on that throbbing knee.

But this forever will be known as The Tramon Mark Game in UH lore.

One where Mark slides over to his point guard and tells him not to worry as he leaves the court.

“I’m scared as hell,” Shead says of what’s going through his mind when he picks up that fourth foul and heads to the bench.

“Jamal is asking me, ‘Coach, what are we going to do?’ ” Kelvin Sampson says, laughing about it afterwards.

“We love it when people doubt us.” — UH guard Tramon Mark

The Tramon Mark Plan

What Houston is going to do is go to Tramon Mark — and let him show the way. Mark doesn’t wink at Shead as he makes those Auburn guards feel like they’re being cooked on a grill. He does not have to. His every jab step into lane and pull up that trickles over the rim, as easy as any Sunday morning, screams it for him.

“I definitely said that,” Mark tells PaperCity of his Don’t Worry line. “Because I believed in (freshman guards) Terrance (Arceneaux) and Emanuel (Sharp). Because they played great. Those three guards right there, we played great. Me, Terrance and Emanuel — we played great in that stretch. We played defense.

“That was a great stretch for us.”

Tramon Mark is being modest and giving his teammates love. Sharp (seven points) and Arceneaux do contribute crucial minutes, but in many ways this game is defined by the often overlooked third elite guard in UH’s staring lineup’s supreme effort.

Take the play in the first half when Mark turns himself into an elite NFL defensive back and skies high to intercept an Auburn pass on the run and safely passes it t0 a teammate while he’s falling out of bounds. Mark will not let his guys lose on this night, will not let this special team see its season end before the Midwest Regional stage in Kansas City. Mark gets this 33-3 team another game (against either four seed Indiana or fifth seed Miami on Friday night in the Show Me State).

On The Mark. And bound for the sweetest of Sweet Sixteens.

Everybody thinks Houston is toast. Everybody thinks the injuries are too much. But there is Tramon Mark just soaking all that in, calmly on the outside, building the fire within. This clear NBA talent will be the baddest man on the court when it matters most, when an entire arena seems like it’s against this No. 1 seed, when Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead cannot save the day, when Charles Barkley is writing Houston off on live TV.

“We love it when people doubt us,” Mark tells PaperCity. “We love sitting in that locker room at halftime and they were doubting us. Knowing what people thinking about us right now. And coming out at halftime, doing what we did, it’s a great feeling.

“And they can stay on that side too. They can stay on that side.”

Tramon Mark smiles. He has no interest in converting the doubters. He has everything he needs in this Houston locker room. And it’s the only place he wants to be on this Saturday night.

Don’t worry. Everything’s fine. Sweeter than Sweet 16. Tramon Mark’s got this.

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