Culture / Sporting Life

Selfless Scoreless Hero Shows How University of Houston Basketball is Building a Team That Could Still Matter in March

Quentin Grimes Hits the Dagger Shot, But Chris Harris Jr. Makes Kelvin Sampson's Lessons Ring True

BY // 12.05.19

“Dagger!” Dagger!” The shout’s routine at University of Houston basketball practices, a demand that anyone who grabs an offensive rebound must pass the ball out to an open perimeter shooter. It is a mantra that Mike D’Antoni, who coaches Houston Rockets games in a building just 2.7 miles from UH’s Fertitta Center, would love.

The scramble for rebounds often leave defenses all out of sorts — and provides the perfect opportunity to get a crushing open 3-pointer, the type of dagger shots that end or change games.

“We have this thing called Dagger,” says UH coach Kelvin Sampson, who’s pretty much coached at every type of level imaginable in basketball besides Space Jam. “Terminology that we Dagger all offensive rebounds. Unless you have a dunk.”

And sometimes, when you do have a dunk.

When Chris Harris Jr. passes up an apparent slam to throw a Dagger pass out to Quentin Grimes behind the arc, it is masterful exclamation point on just about the sweetest scoreless game you’ll ever see. Shown the ultimate belief by one of his still new teammates, Grimes, the Kansas transfer, hits the biggest shot of the game.

It doubles Houston’s lead to six with 2:58 remaining, sending Sampson’s team on to a 68-60 win over Texas State Wednesday night that shows how last season’s surprise juggernaut is still very much a growth stock.

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“Dagger! Dagger!” Indeed.

This now 4-2 UH team will have plenty of chances to prove how much it’s learning over the next 11 days with games at South Carolina (where the Gamecocks are already 5-1 at home) and against Top 25 worthy Oklahoma State at the Fertitta Center on December 15.

The Cougars stay on track because Harris Jr. refuses to lose his one-track focus. The senior grabs 12 rebounds (including seven offensive boards) and blocks a career-high six shots. Without taking a single shot from the field himself.

That’s about as anti-AAU, get-yours ball as you can get. Pete Maravich would roll over in his grave if he saw that line.

But Harris Jr. knows he is anything but a gunner. “Honestly, I don’t think about scoring,” he says — and you almost believe him. Every basketball player in history, including the guy with two arthritic knees huffing and puffing up the court at your local YMCA, wants to get buckets.

But Chris Harris Jr. has been in Kelvin Sampson’s program for three years now. He knows his path to playing time is determined by other things than scoring. On this night, he logs 28 minutes of court time after having played only 55 minutes total in UH’s first five games.

“Without question our best player was Chris,” Sampson says. “He was our best player tonight.”

Chris Harris Jr. UH
Chris Harris Jr. can completely change a game without scoring. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

This is what you call a program win for one of college basketball’s most determined and successful program builders. Chris Harris Jr. being the most impactful player on the floor on a night when he does not score says plenty about what Sampson has already built at UH.

Sampson does not give up on players, even if their significance in the playing rotation bounces around game by game. If you show him something, UH’s coach will give you the minutes.

On this night, only Grimes (37 minutes), Fabian White Jr. (33 minutes) and do-everything point guard DeJon Jarreau (31 minutes) play more than Harris Jr. Make yourself big and Sampson will see you.

Quentin Grimes’ Journey From Kansas

It is only fitting that the hustle man passes out to Grimes on the sequence that lets the Cougars breathe. Grimes, the former five star recruit from The Woodlands who left one of college basketball’s ultimate brand name programs for a restart at UH, carries a unique burden on this Houston team.

One of the only natural scorers on the roster, a player Sampson can ill afford to take off the floor in a close game, Grimes is also a 19-year-old who is still finding his way with a new team. He scores 14 of his game-high 21 points after halftime against Texas State, proving to be an indispensable offensive lifeline even on a night when he shoots 6 for 17.

“First half I kinda took some shots where I probably could have got to the paint (instead),” Grimes says. “Gotten to the free throw line… Second half, I kind of put my head down on defense and got real aggressive. The refs were calling it pretty tight so I knew I could get fouled and could go to free throw line and start chipping away.”

In many ways, that is what this first few months of the season are all about for a University of Houston team playing in the shadow of last season’s 33-4 dream —  chipping away. Scoring 40 points in the second half against a slow down Texas State team that lost by only nine points at No. 18 Baylor is another important step forward.

These Cougars are in no one’s rankings right now — including Andy Katz’s, which go a whopping 44 teams deep. But that’s OK. It is still December, another galaxy from March.

Kelvin Sampson’s been doing this team building thing for a long time now — as he reminds a young athletic department employee before his postgame media session begins.

“I think I know how to do this,” Sampson says, “after 30 some years of running press conferences.”

Sampson is comfortable at the microphone, but practice is where this 64-year-old basketball lifer still excels most. That is where he changes teams, molds new mindsets. And even creates a senior who happily gives up a dunk to set up the new guy for a game-grabbing 3.

Chris Harris Jr. being the most impactful player on the floor on a night when he does not score says plenty about what Sampson has already built at UH.

White Jr. will add 15 points, adding several inside moves to his regular baseline jumpers. Jarreau, looking closer to himself than he has all season recovering from that broken hand, contributes 12 points and five rebounds without forcing much. Nate Hinton almost quietly scores 14 points and grabs eight rebounds in 23 efficient minutes.

“I’m not sure we could have played this well a month ago, three weeks ago,” Sampson says. “When we played BYU, we weren’t ready to beat them. Do I think we’re better than BYU? Maybe. But we’re trying to figure out how we need to win the game.”

Sometimes that means leaning on the guy who doesn’t score (or even shoot) — and honoring those practice shouts.

“Dagger! Dagger!”

This basketball scream is anything but sweet nothings. It is the sound of a team slowly finding its way.

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