Inside Houston’s Heartbreak — There’s Crying and Real Love in This UH Locker Room
Kelvin Sampson's Players Hold Each Other Up After Stunning NCAA Loss to Kentucky, Show What a True Team Looks LikeBY Chris Baldwin // 03.30.19
DeJon Jarreau raced over to contest the shot, but Tyler Herro's transition three led to Houston heartbreak in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
University of Houston lifeline Corey Davis Jr. is as impactful as a guard as you'll find in college basketball.
University of Houston's bench certainly brings it. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston sophomore Nate Hinton has turned himself into a difference-making force . (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston forward Brison Gresham seems to pop off the bench blocking shots. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston lifeline Nate Hinton shows plenty of junkyard dog in his game. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson has cut down more than a few nets at the University of Houston. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston's basketball program gets into the championship celebration. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson won UH's first conference championship trophy in 27 years in 2019. Then, he did it again in 2020. And 2021. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston forward Breaon Brady holds up one of the championship T-shirts. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston's basketball players are enjoying a season of moments. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston senior Landon Goesling doesn't play a ton, but he's an impact player at practice. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston forward Breaon Brady has developed a number of moves inside. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston guard Corey Davis Jr. is fearless driving to the hoop. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston forward Breaon Brady was a force down low. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
There is plenty of excitement about University of Houston basketball at the moment. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston blocked nine shots in its win over Cincinnati — and Breaon Brady brought it when he could. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston guard DeJon Jarreau scored 11 straight points in a crucial second half stretch against Cincinnati. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston guard Corey Davis Jr. is the team's sometimes hidden star. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Fertitta Center now regularly sells out, giving University of Houston a real homecourt scene. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Chris Harris Jr. can make an impact inside for the University of Houston. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston's Galen Robinson Jr. is one of the best defensive guards in the country. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Chris Paul with Tilman Fertitta back when he was a Rocket. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
The Fertitta Center is already developing some serious atmosphere. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
It's a good time to be cheering for University of Houston basketball. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Breaon Brady fights for the University of Houston inside. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Tilman Fertitta whispered sweet somethings into UH president Renu Khator's ear as they enjoyed the University of Houston's basketball show. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The tears just keep coming — and Chris Harris Jr. doesn’t seem to know what to do. The 6-foot-10 Harris, the tallest player on the University of Houston’s roster, looks lost in the misery that March can so cruelly deliver.
One minute you’re up 58-55 on storied Kentucky after a fierce second half comeback that shows America just how strong the will of this Houston team is. The next, you’re staggering off the court stunned 62-58 losers, the hurt seemingly compounding with every step.
There is no way to prepare for something like this — especially when you never see the end coming.
Several of Harris’ teammates notice that he is particularly struggling. Sophomore forward Fabian White Jr., who only wiped off his own tears moments before, walks across the big Sprint Center locker room and sits down next to Harris. White puts his arm around the big man — and just stays there talking to him for several minutes.
Next, senior guard Galen Robinson Jr. comes over and rubs Harris on the head, whispers something in his ear.
Houston’s season is over, but these Cougars are still holding each other up.
The NCAA Tournament run is done, ripped away from Houston’s grasp just when this special team seemed to be on the brink of playing for a Final Four berth on Sunday. But the love remains.
“Closest team I’ve ever been on,” senior center Breaon Brady tells PaperCity. “I’ve never been on a team this close. I’ve never felt the way I feel about these guys for anyone other than blood family.
“If they’re not blood, they’re close.”
This is a team that fought together for a happy ending. Really, they fought for just more time together. To extend the run meant a chance to hang out more.
“We just wanted another practice,” White says. “Another day.”
Down 13 points to John Calipari’s NBA training land program at one point — and still trailing by nine with under 15 minutes remaining — Houston rips off a 20-8 run to take a 54-51 lead on Armoni Brooks’ sixth 3-pointer of the game.
Houston fans are nearly making the Sprint Center vibrate at this point, drowning out the larger contingent of nervous Kentucky fans. Calipari is going crazy on the sideline, begging his players to take a breath.
Kentucky is wobbling like Mike Tyson in Tokyo. And everyone in the arena can feel it.
“When Armoni gets going we all kind of look at each other,” UH senior guard Landon Goesling says of the scene on the Cougar bench. “He gets that look in his eye — and we’re all just going crazy.”
Kentucky fights back, but there’s super sixth man DeJon Jarreau slicing into the lane to finish a twisting layup — as grown man a move as you’ll ever see in college basketball. Then, Corey Davis Jr. gets to the rim and it’s suddenly 58-55 in favor of Houston.
“We thought we had them,” White says. “We just needed one stop.”
One stop to move onto the Elite Eight. One stop to shock America — and bust maybe a million brackets.
“They were not going to go away,” Calipari says of Houston. “We had to go get balls and do some stuff to beat them.”
Kentucky needs a player (PJ Washington), who took pain pills in order to be able to even play in the game with his throbbing foot, to hit a hook in the lane as he’s being fouled. Then, they need Washington to follow that by blocking Davis at the rim.
That swat triggers a fast break that ends in Tyler Herro — the Kentucky player dubbed Boy Wonder — pulling up to hit a triple with 25 seconds left. It’s 60-58 Wildcats and Kelvin Sampson’s record breaking Houston team is down to its last chance.
It ends with Davis coming up short on another drive in the lane, the capper on a uncharacteristic 5-for-16 shooting night for the guard who’s carried the Cougars so many times this season.
Soon, UH’s players are walking off the court like zombies, not quite wanting to believe the numbers frozen up there on the scoreboard.
So close — and then it’s all gone. There are no second chances in the NCAA Tournament, no margin for anything but pure joy. Or devastating agony.
“It’s like a sharp pain,” Davis says, shaking his head. “We all love each other. We all know if we lose the game, it’s over.”
The Cougars spend one more night in Kansas City before flying back to Houston early Saturday afternoon. It’s not a night of sleeping. It’s a night of wondering.
UH fans — who’ve been burned by coaches leaving before — may be torturing themselves with the notion that Kelvin Sampson could bolt to Arkansas in order to coach in the SEC. But Houston player after Houston player tells PaperCity they are convinced their ornery, caring 63-year-old leader is staying.
“I have faith,” freshman forward Nate Hinton says. “He talked to the team. I’m very confident in it.”
No, what the Cougar players wonder about is how close they came.
“We were right there,” Brady says in a locker room growing quieter by the minute. “We were right there… Some nights it’s just not meant for the better team to win.
“I definitely feel the better team did not win.”
This Houston squad that broke Phi Slama Jama’s school record for victories and put the university in the Sweet 16 for the first time in 35 years, taking the entire city of Houston along for the ride, is a team in every way till the end. Make that till after the end.
For there the players are in the locker room, sharing hugs and backslaps. Holding each other up when needed. That’s how true brothers do it — blood or not.
As the season is packed away, Houston’s seniors stash away their game jerseys and shorts, determined to keep a souvenir for themselves. “They’ll have to fight me for this jersey if they want it back,” Davis laughs.
Only one thing remains — written in Sharpie — on the giant whiteboard in the center of the locker room. 33-4 it reads.
That is the remarkable final record of this 2018-19 University of Houston basketball team. 33-4.
Nothing can take that away. Not Kentucky 62, Houston 58. Nothing.
“Crazy thing is we’re Houston and we just lost to Kentucky — and we’re hanging our heads,” Robinson says. “That just tells you how far we’ve come.”
Houston basketball means something different now.
After Sampson says a few words to his team in the immediate aftermath of the loss, the players come together for one final raised hand huddle.
“It’s bring it in for the last time,” Brady tells PaperCity, describing the scene. “And everybody’s pretty much crying.”
There will be no more practices, no more games, no more road trips together. But there are days and days of memories that will last decades to come.
This team’s left its mark. Especially on each other.