Houston could have played a pretty good game and still lost Friday night. Miami was that good.
But we’ll never really know.
Instead, Houston was disconcerted early in the game as Marcus Sasser, Tramon Mark, and Jarace Walker struggled offensively. J’Wan Roberts did not figure much in the offense, taking only two shots.
That’s 13/43 (30.2%) from four-fifths of your starting lineup. And that’s just the shooting. Houston’s specialty stats were even worse.
They couldn’t force turnovers when it mattered. They didn’t make many of their second chances. And they panicked.
The first-half numbers sound disastrous: four points in the paint (Miami had 14), zero points off turnovers (Miami had 15), and scoring only three fastbreak points (Miami had 11). So when you looked up and saw them down only six at the break, you had to believe the score to be semi-miraculous, and they’d right the ship post-haste.
But an early second-half run pushed Miami’s lead to 11, and the Cougars looked cooked. After a quick Sampson timeout, they started chipping away. They went inside and whittled the deficit down to two. Auburn all over again, right?
But now, a Miami timeout settled the Canes and ended up making even more of a difference.
Over the next 4.5 minutes, the Hurricanes hit five-straight three-pointers, as Houston went 2/8 from the floor, to push the lead up to 17. The game was effectively over.
Miami had done to Houston what the Cougars usually do to others. They exploited a small opening, leaving Houston dizzy and confused. Houston was punched in the mouth and couldn’t respond.
In the NCAA Tournament, locker rooms are open after the game. Media members can walk up to any player not participating in the postgame press conference, shove a microphone in their face, and ask any silly thing they want. Such as asking a player whose college career had just ended if they had let Kelvin down.
As the doors were thrown open, most media members swarmed J’Wan Roberts. J’Wan answered questions, even the stupid ones, and handled himself well. But when the glare of the tv lights had moved on to other players, J’Wan Roberts had a quiet moment to reflect. He looked shell-shocked, honestly, but like so many times before, he took the time to chat one-on-one. He said that the game plan was solid, but the Coogs were a step slow. More than anything, he was disappointed that they wouldn’t be able to saddle up again together.
At the far end of the locker room, Reggie Chaney was contemplating the end. He was sober and direct, as he typically has been. When reporters were done with their questions, he shook their hands and told each of them thank you. And then… well, then he laughed at me for misjudging the closeness of his locker and hitting my head. But after that quick laugh, he was sober as he opened up: he said the team wasn’t quite mature enough to stay with the game plan. So when Miami started pouring in threes, UH tried to match them. That’s not us, he said.
Reggie will move on and have a pro career if he wants it. His scrappiness will be valued somewhere. Marcus Sasser and Jarace Walker will leave for NBA millions but won’t swallow this one as quickly as one might expect.
Most of this young team will return and face many questions over the next few months. But tonight, the question is, what if. What if they were not tentative? What if they challenged Miami at the bucket earlier in the game? What if they played better defense, and Miami didn’t knock down so many shots?
What if Marcus Sasser didn’t get hurt? What if Jamal Shead was at 100%? What if Kelvin Sampson didn’t suffer a horrific family tragedy just two weeks ago?
There have been lots of questions since Sasser was hurt in the AAC Tournament—a lot of second-guessing. But the fact is that the team played only one good half in the final three games, at a time of the season when you expect a Kelvin Sampson team to be playing their best.
There are very few answers at this point. There will be, of course. Kelvin Sampson will watch the tape, and then watch it again. And then, he will be brutally honest.