Culture / Sporting Life

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 Like

BY // 03.30.19

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.”

The Comeback

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.

University of Houston Cougars Corey Davis
University of Houston guard Corey Davis Jr. is fearless driving to the hoop. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

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 Aftermath

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.

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