Culture / Sporting Life

Fabian White’s Drive, Kelvin Sampson’s Halftime Challenge and Renu Khator’s Pride — Inside Another Championship Moment for UH Basketball

When the Ultimate Teammate Refuses to Let Houston Lose

BY // 03.02.22

As Fabian White Jr. went through warmups, his dad could tell. A parent can always tell. Especially when the family is as close as the Whites. Fabian White Sr. knew what Cincinnati was in for even if the Bearcats didn’t quite realize it yet.

“I could see it,” White Sr. tells PaperCity. “The way he was going through warmups getting his teammates going, getting himself going. I knew he was going to have a breakout game. He wasn’t going to let this one go. He had that look.”

Call it the look of a champion. With Fabian White Jr. refusing to let the University of Houston lose, carrying the winningest entity in all of Houston sports early, until Kelvin Sampson could get to them at halftime, the Cougars won another championship. This time it’s this elite program’s third American Athletic Conference regular season title in four seasons.

Tomorrow? Who knows? The sky somehow still seems to be the limit for an injury-crushed, depth-challenged 25-4 team. Because of players like Fabian White.

“Now look at what this program has done — basketball,” UH president Renu Khator tells PaperCity in the happy moments after Houston 71, Cincinnati 53 becomes final. “Particularly with all the injuries, all the heart. This is completely magical.

“Now we’re ready to go to the Big 12. And we’re not going there to play. We’re going there to win.”

While the Big 12 will have to wait another season or two, there’s no doubt that UH basketball has been playing at an elite power conference level for years now. This is one of the best basketball programs in all of America — with the hardware to show it.

“No matter how many championships we win, it never gets old,” UH coach Kelvin Sampson says as he pulls billionaire believer Tilman Fertitta into a long embrace. “Now give me a hug brother.”

Fertitta is at the Fertitta Center on this Tuesday night, sitting in the front row right next to Khator, even though his Houston Rockets are playing downtown at the Toyota Center because there is really no other place to be. Championship moments don’t come around all that often. In any sport. They’re beyond special, Even if it seems like Kelvin Sampson pulls a few off every season these days.

“I don’t take that stuff for granted because I do this for a living,” Sampson says. “We’ve won four championships in the last four years, right?. . . I don’t take it for granted because I know how hard it is. I know how hard our kids work.”

This is a night for powerful UH figures like Fertitta and Khator to take pride in. It’s a night for all the fans who pack the Fertitta Center and make it one of the best atmospheres in college basketball. It’s a night for seeing long-range visions that sometimes seemed impossible come true. Again.

“We sold him the dream,” Khator says in recalling her first meeting with Kelvin Sampson during the hiring process. “Because we didn’t have anything. And I’m so glad we made it happen.”

This night is about all that, sure. But for Kelvin Sampson, it’s mostly about his players. It’s about a three star recruit who wasn’t the first option at Atascocita High School becoming a go-to scorer for an elite championship level major college program. Through hard work and a relentless will.

Fabian White’s been the leader this wounded team has needed all season. The one who picks his teammates up when they’re down, the one who pushes them in a way that only a fellow player can. The one who texts them encouragement after Kelvin Sampson chews them out. The one who is always making sure everyone feels included. But on this night, with the rest of the Cougars seemingly feeling the moment, knowing they’re one win away from a title, White takes it upon himself to get it done.

The 6-foot-8 forward scores 11 of Houston’s first 13 points, 20 overall in a first half when the Cougars need every one of them and finishes with a career high 28. White seized this clinch night by the throat and never let it go. He wouldn’t let Houston falter or give into the idea of playing for the title on another night.

He’d get it done. Someway. Somehow. On this night, that means those 28 points, 10 rebounds and 36 minutes of showing his teammates the way. That’s what you call power lifting.

Taze Moore’s lightning quick six second push up the court and pull up three at the first half buzzer gives the rest of the Cougars a needed jolt. And then Kelvin and Kellen Sampson, the son/assistant who will be Houston’s next head coach, give them an even bigger one in the locker room.

The Sampson challenge their players to up their intensity in the second half in a blistering manner that could peel paint off some walls. And certainly could be heard outside these locker room walls.

“There was some stuff going on at halftime that I think woke them up a little bit,” Kelvin Sampson says.

“Coach does his thing where he gets us to play harder,” Fabian White says with a smile. “And he got through our heads at halftime and we ended up playing harder. Some guys started locking up (on defense) better than they was first half. And we ended up extending the lead.”

When I ask White if that’s one of the more demanding Sampson halftimes he’s experienced, he grins again.

“Nah, that was light,” White says. “I’ve seen him more intense. He has his way of getting us going though.”

If that’s light, Cincinnati (17-13) does not want to see the results of Kelvin Sampson going hard. For after that loud halftime session, the Bearcats struggled to score 19 points in 20 second half minutes against that Sampson energized defense.

Cincinnati misses 18 of the 25 shots it takes in the second half after shooting 52 percent in the first half. You don’t win multiple championship without knowing how to motivate players.

“The way he was going through warmups getting his teammates going, getting himself going. I knew he was going to have a breakout game. He wasn’t going to let this one go.” — Fabian White Sr. on his son.

University of Houston Cougars basketball team clinched the American Athletic Conference crown with a win over Cincinnati, 71-53 at the Fertitta Center
Kyler Edwards often guards the opposing team’s best player. Here, he makes talented Cincinnati guard David DeJulius’ life miserable. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Still, this particular season is one of even Kelvin Sampson’s coaching masterpieces, one that might deserve mention on the Sampson enshrinement display that should be in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame someday. To go 14-2 and win the AAC with two games to spare after elite guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark went out with injuries is one of the more remarkable coaching feats you’ll ever see.

“I think what Coach Sampson’s done this year is unbelievable,” Fertitta says amid a celebration that doesn’t include any net cutting (Sampson is making his guys wait till after Thursday’s game against Temple even though that game will have no impact on the conference race). “Let’s look at what happened to them. And for us to end up with record we have and the American Athletic Conference. . .

“I think it speaks to the kids he’s recruited and what an unbelievable job he’s done again.”

Making History — With Fabian White Pushing for More

Sometimes everybody’s watching history and many don’t even realize it. Fabian White and Co. are focused on continuing to make history. The players talk amongst themselves about getting back to the Final Four that most college basketball analysts give them no shot at — and winning it. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi and longtime college basketball writer Andy Katz both currently peg the Cougars as a fifth seed in the NCAA Tournament. CBS bracketlogist Jerry Palm projects UH as a sixth seed.

Kelvin Sampson’s team shrugs and wins on.

“We sold him the dream. Because we didn’t have anything. And I’m so glad we made it happen.” — UH president Renu Khator on hiring Kelvin Sampson.

The Cougars only go seven or eight players deep — even after Sampson recently adjusted the rotation to cut down on the 38 and 40 minute game logs. They don’t have enough players to even practice five on five. And yet, here they are, champs again. With two games to spare.

“This one hits a little different because we was counted out,” White says. “Early in the season, before conference even started.”

University of Houston Cougars basketball team clinched the American Athletic Conference crown with a win over Cincinnati, 71-53 at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston forward Fabian White Jr. showed off the full array of his game. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

On this night after Fabian White steadies them and the Sampsons do their halftime thing, a lineup of Josh Carlton (15 points, nine rebounds), Taze Moore (12 points, six rebounds), Kyler Edwards (12 points, four assists, four rebounds), Ramon Walker Jr. and White give Houston more than enough energy in the second half.

It ends with a windmill of a Taze Moore breakaway dunk, a final high-flying exclamation point on this UH team’s 22nd double digit win of the season.

The regular season conference race is over. Finished and won early by a dominant Houston team that logic says shouldn’t be this dominant.

That type of logic never met Fabian White Jr. Not with this look in his eyes.

“He’s always been a leader, from high school,” Fabian White Sr., the proud dad, says as he waits for his son to get out of the locker room. “And once he got here, he picked up the reins and learned from his teammates. Once his teammates left, he became the dependable guy.

“He felt like he was going to take that role and he’s embraced it.”

On this night, clinch night, Fabian White Jr. wouldn’t let his guys lose. The Fertitta Center is packed. There are so many big names in the building. So many others looking to grab onto some of that magic, not knowing how much sweat that it takes. But no one shines as bright as Fabian White.

One championship secured. So much more to chase with March already here.

“He’s not done yet,” Fabian White Sr. says. Dad knows.

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