Culture / Sporting Life

UH’s Heartbreaking SportsCenter Moment Proves Fertitta Center is Far Superior to Toyota Center and NBA for Basketball Thrills

College Basketball's Passion Cannot be Faked

BY // 11.18.19

The entire arena is on its feet as the shot goes up — something that almost never happens at a Rockets game until the playoffs. This is the type of moment that can almost make it feel like March — even though it’s not even Thanksgiving. The ball bounces on the rim, hangs for half a second and drops in.

Most of the crowd moans or stands in stunned silence. University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson ventures out to half court where he just stands there in his blue dress shirt, his red tie having long ago been ripped off. Sampson’s reaction will become part of the viral clip that takes the No. 2 spot on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Night.

Later, BYU coach Mark Pope will run into the visitors locker room carrying a Gatorade jug full of water to happily fling at his players, who are waiting with their own spray bottles.

In the big scheme of things, this last second, buzzer beating 72-71 BYU win over UH won’t necessarily mean that much. This game, especially with Houston difference maker DeJon Jarreau still severely limited by the after effects of a broken hand, will not determine the direction of the Cougars’ season. It will not guarantee that a senior laden BYU team has a successful year even if Pope’s squad already looks like the kind of 3-point shooting bunch that could give a favorite a serious scare in March.

Despite that reality, no one there will likely forget this game.

This is college basketball’s edge. It’s why the Fertitta Center (with its 7,035 seats) makes for a much more memorable basketball watching experience than the 18,000 seat Toyota Center during the regular season.

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Though many NBA teams try by pumping in canned crowd noise, you cannot fake passion.

This is what the Fertitta Center has — and it came through loud and clear in that Friday night buzzer beater. The place is almost full too (with actual people in the seats, not just “sold” empty chairs) something you rarely ever see at the much larger Toyota Center during the regular season.

“This is a great game,” Pope tells PaperCity after BYU-UH.  “It also helps you grow. Win or lose, it helps you find out who are. Down the road, Net rankings all of that kind of stuff, is something else. But for pure playing basketball, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

TJ Haws — a senior guard who is 24 and looks about 34 (welcome to the world of BYU) — hits that bouncing game winner after missing nine of his other 12 shots. Jarreau is off the bench, waving his arms high in the air, cheering his teammates down the stretch even though true freshman guard Caleb Mills is closing out this game rather than him. Jarreau just wants a win.

This is the passion of college basketball played by teams that care about each other. Watching James Harden try to average 40 points a game can be exciting in its own right. But that’s more of a lesson in supreme skill — and the power of a Mike D’Antoni offensive system — than passion.

The frenzy of the Fertitta Center — in what Sampson calls “a high stakes game,” a matchup between two teams with legit NCAA Tournament aspirations from good conferences— is something else entirely.

UH basketball (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

There is Houston coming back from a 14-point deficit to take the lead. There is UH sophomore forward Nate Hinton playing textbook defense to lock down Jake Toolson (a 23-year-old married grad transfer who is the reigning WAC Player of the Year) and poke the ball away for a steal with just six seconds left.

Hinton seems poised to put the comeback win away for Houston with an emphatic breakaway dunk. Instead, he is whistled for traveling — giving BYU another chance and setting up Haws’ moment.

This sequence — from comeback to crushed at the buzzer — plays out in the dramatic mood swings of an almost packed arena’s crowd. This is the Fertitta Center’s edge.

You just cannot fake this type of emotion — and there’s no way you can summon it for 82 NBA games in a season, no matter how many times you call something fantastic.

Fertitta Center Fervor

The Fertitta Center will be the best place to watch basketball in Houston until the Rockets start the playoffs in April. It also remains something of a hidden gem in its second season. You’ve either been to the Fertitta Center or you have no idea what you’re missing. (UH basketball selling out in season tickets this season is testament to this — if you’ve been, you probably want to go back.)

This place boasts virtually all the perks of a major mega arena without the drawbacks (long lines to get in, seats with bad sight lines and a long parade of seemingly similar games). The fact that is home to a UH team that should be intensely entertaining but anything but predictable in its follow-up to last season’s history-making 33-4 campaign is no small bonus.

“I’m still learning this team,” Sampson says. “And they’re still learning each other.”

Caleb Mills is capable of carrying the offense and scoring 17 points against BYU one night and fading into the background another night. Quentin Grimes, the ultra talented transfer from Kansas, looks like the best player on the floor one night and like he is still searching to find his role with a new team the next night.

You just cannot fake this type of emotion — and there’s no way you can summon it for 82 NBA games in a season, no matter how many times you call something fantastic.

This is how it goes — with the only certainty the passion and the will. I’m a huge NBA guy, one who’s paid for League Pass for years. All the injuries (and Zion Williamson, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson’s absences in particular) and the fall of the Golden State Warriors have clearly crippled some interest in the Association early on this season. But it’s more than that.

When it comes to games that matter — to real passion — the Fertitta Center beats the Toyota Center by a wide margin right now.

BYU coach Mark Pope played at Kentucky. He knows legit college basketball fervor in a way few others can understand. When that guy leaves UH’s on campus arena gushing about the atmosphere of an early season November game, you know there is something there.

“Coach Sampson, he’s one of the best in all of college basketball,” Pope says. “And he really has something here.”

Pope is still standing on a darkened Fertitta Center court a good 45 minutes after the final buzzer, talking to some visiting BYU backers. He is no rush to leave the echoes of a lit night.

Sometimes basketball nirvana is hiding in plain sight.

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