Culture / Sporting Life

UH Shows Final Four Fight and Resolve in Out Toughing Texas Tech, Hostile Fort Worth Crowd — Inside an Emphatic Kelvin Sampson Program Win

Little General, DeJon Jarreau, Quentin Grimes and Unstoppable Determination Make an Early College Basketball Statement

BY // 11.30.20

FORT WORTH — Dickies Arena is loud, and getting louder. It is full of red, but not Houston Cougars red. Instead, almost the entire crowd of 5,5000 — save several dozen dissenters — seems to be screaming for Texas Tech. They yell and stomp with the full-throated conviction that the University of Houston basketball team’s collapse is inevitable.

Surely, Kelvin Sampson’s team will fold when faced with the full pressure of their Final Four proven program.

“They really thought they were going to win,” Glenn Sasser says, grinning after Houston finishes off Texas Tech 64-53. “They don’t know how tough Marcus and the guys are.”

The college basketball world is certainly starting to find out. Glenn Sasser is one of University of Houston guard Marcus Sasser’s uncles. On this Sunday, he and about nine other Sasser family members help bolster UH’s percentage of the crowd a little. The Houston fans make up a few tiny pockets in the still sparkling one-year-0ld arena.

The entire place is not rooting against UH. It just feels — and sounds — that way. “It felt like a road game,” Sampson says. “They allowed 5,800, 5,500, and I think 95 to 98 percent of them were Texas Tech fans.”

It’s not the Cameron Crazies at full tilt. But in this coronavirus impacted season, it’s no stretch to imagine that this could be the most hostile crowd Houston faces all season. The Texas Tech fanatics — and if you call Lubbock home and you’re not fanatical about Red Raiders sports, your entertainment options are very limited — make Dickies Arena almost sound full.

They cannot stop UH, though. Neither can the 14th ranked team in America, a legitimate Final Four contender packed with impact transfers.

The Cougars play like a team on a mission. The game begins with loud, unmistakable “Let’s Go Raiders!” chants drowning out anything else. Then, UH gets to work — and everything changes.

“We had to come out here and kind of make a statement from the jump,” Houston guard Quentin Grimes says.

They leap out to a 27-9 lead, build the advantage up to 20 points (53-33) with 12 minutes remaining and keep it together to close it out when Texas Tech turns the game into an absolute slog in the final eight minutes. Houston out works, out smarts and out talents Chris Beard’s Red Raiders.

Statement delivered.

In truth, the University of Houston has been one of the best two or three basketball programs in the entire state of Texas — no matter the conference — for several years now. But sometimes, it takes a game like this — in a setting like this — to help make everyone who isn’t looking closely enough catch on.

“We looked at this like an NCAA Tournament game,” Cougars forward Justin Gorham says.

It very could be one in March. But with the way this 3-0 UH team (which vaulted from No. 17 to No. 10 in the new Top 25 Monday) is playing and the way Texas Tech (2-1) is setup to succeed any Indianapolis bubble NCAA Tournament rematch would likely have to take place in an Elite Eight or Final Four scenario (assuming the field isn’t expanded from 68 teams). These look like two future high NCAA Tournament seeds.

These have been the two best college basketball programs in Texas the last four seasons. Texas Tech’s gone 96-34 over that span with an overtime loss in the 2019 National Championship Game. UH boasts a 106-31 record in that span and would be riding a streak of four straight NCAA Tournament berths if the 2020 NCAA Tournament had taken place. The only other major Texas school that can come close to Texas Tech and UH’s recent resume is Baylor, which has a 94-41 record but only two NCAA berths in that timeline.

Beard called it, “Two of the best teams in college basketball.”

One is clearly better on this late November Sunday.

Kelvin Sampson UH
Kelvin Sampson has built one of the very best college basketball programs in Texas. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Every time Texas Tech thinks it can smell a comeback, Kelvin Sampson’s team makes another bold play. DeJon Jarreau swipes the ball and gets all the way to the opposite rim for foul shots. Grimes puts back his own miss, out hustling two Red Raiders. Brison Gresham keeps altering shots (three blocks and many more contests) and mucking up Texas Tech’s interior game.

“The reason we didn’t have that balanced scoring was Houston,” Beard says in his postgame press session. “The reason we had too many turnovers was Houston. The reason we fouled too much late in possessions was Houston.”

UH’s Program Win

Kelvin Sampson has been methodically building the University of Houston program, practice after practice, year after year. Now, envisioning a Final Four run is not so farfetched. This UH team is more talented than the 33-4 team of 2018-19 powered by Corey Davis and Galen Robinson. Whether, this team can play with that team’s fierce consistency and togetherness is a question that will be answered in the coming months.

In some ways, that 33-4 team helped make this kind of moment against Texas Tech possible. But the Cougars of today grab it.

“Our kids played championship basketball tonight,” Sampson says with Dickies Arena’s basketball setup for this Southwest Showcase event already being taken down. “We’ll talk about being humble, how important humility is.”

Of course, the swagger to hit big shots helps too. Marcus Sasser possesses an abundance of that. And playing back in the Metroplex where he grew up, has both his shot and his family humming. Sasser hits two threes early and another to give Houston that 20-point lead in the second half.

“He always could shoot,” Glenn Sasser tells PaperCity.

This is a family of nicknames. Glenn Sasser’s is Sergeant and he says they call Marcus “Little General.” Another uncle (Jason Sasser) won the last Southwest Conference Player of the Year award at Texas Tech in 1996. Now, Marcus Sasser is a vital part of a deep Houston rotation of guards that have a chance to create their own legacy.

How deep?

UH runs away from Texas Tech with Caleb Mills — its most natural scorer — limited to only 11 minutes and four points by two throbbing ankles.

How deep?

Tramon Mark, one of the highest ranked recruits (a four star) in UH basketball history, uses his crafty lefty game to score six points in 90 seconds in a key late first half spurt on a night when Sampson admits he does not feel like Mark plays all that well at all.

“The reason we didn’t have that balanced scoring was Houston. The reason we had too many turnovers was Houston. The reason we fouled too much late in possessions was Houston.” — Texas Tech coach Chris Beard

Then, there is DeJon Jarreau, the unconventional, stretching slinky of a point guard. Jarreau’s eight points on 3 for 10 shooting does not look like all that much in the boxscore. But when the ball swings to him for an open 3-pointer when Texas Tech seems to be gaining momentum in the second half, he does not hesitate like he might have last season. Jarreau simply fires — and hits it.

“He can make shots better than he can shoot,” Sampson says of Jarreau. “But his athleticism and rebounding…”

Those are next level. Jarreau ends up with more assists (five) and steals (three) than anyone else on the floor for either team. He’s part of the wave of long Cougar defenders that make Mac McClung, the scoring wizard Texas Tech got from Georgetown, work for 16 points in 37 hard minutes. McClung does not hit a single 3 and needs to rely on 14 free throw attempts to get anything going.

Toughness Staredown

Texas Tech is a program built on toughness and Beard’s unbridled intensity, but Sampson’s program is just as tough. On this November night, UH is tougher.

UH 64, Texas Tech 53 is no accident. It’s anything but a fluke.

“We run 18 100-yard sprints in 13 1/2 seconds,” Sampson says of the Cougars’ groundwork conditioning drills. “And they have to run every one of those in 13 1/2 seconds or they have to do them over. The mental toughness that takes helps you win games like today.

“Those three hour, three hour and 15 minute practices helps you win games like today.”

By the time the day is over, and the final buzzer sounds, most of that Texas Tech red army is already well on the way to their cars. Marcus Sasser, Grimes, Jarreau and Co. take a moment to celebrate on their bench and walk over to point to one of the small sections of their fans.

It turns out UH versus The World is just fine. These Cougars have been preparing for that, day after day, sprint after sprint, practice after practice.

You may be surprised. Texas Tech’s fanatics may be still shocked. But no one wearing a UH red uniform is.

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