I don’t know if there has ever been a sporting event like the Oregon State game where I felt every single human emotion.
Before the game, I had zero doubt UH would win it. I fully expected another double-digit decimation and I had zero concerns before tip. Confident. In the first half, the only concern I had was that the Coogs could not pull away as far as I thought we should. In control. We owned the first half but even a 17-point lead didn’t show just how dominant we were. I thought we should have been up by 30.
In the 2nd half, the real roller coaster began. I expected an Oregon State run but I didn’t think they’d end up tying the game. Anxious. I was stunned but I just had to accept it. After all, I’m a UH fan and I expect to get gut-punched. Nervous. One minute, I’m dreaming about these guys in the Final Four and a split-second later, I’m wrestling with “here we go again.” Frustrated.
Then came the dread. I convince myself that we’re going to lose. Panicked. UH has just totally lost their way and then BAM! Quentin Grimes with a 3! Excited! Then a dumb foul and the Beavers inch closer. We miss a shot but get the offensive board. Another miss and yet another offensive board. Tense. Grimes makes two free throws and back and forth down the floor with no scores. It’s like the clock isn’t moving. Dying. Down five, Oregon State gets the ball inside and they’ll cut it to one possession. But no! Turnover! Jarreau steals it and after Marcus Sasser hits a free throw, I can breathe. Relief! They did it!
In reality, I still don’t know how to feel. Ryan Monceaux texted me minutes after the game and perfectly captured my feelings. “What are we supposed to do? Hug? Cry? Where is the user manual?”
So I just sat there soaking it all in. I’ve been a passive UH fan since 1983 when Phi Slama Jama came to Dallas to play at SMU. I was just a kid and my rec league basketball team got free tickets to sit on the UH baseline. It was my first time seeing UH play and I’ve been a Cougar fan since that night.
When UH offered me a baseball scholarship a decade later, I told my dad, “I can’t believe I am going to the home of Phi Slama Jama”. By that time, PSJ was long gone but those memories always stuck with me. They defined the greatness that UH once was and could be again.
In the 28 years since I stepped on campus, there have been a few highs and more than enough lows. I have been conditioned to hope for the best and expect the worst. But in the last few years, Kelvin Sampson has taught me something different: believe in the plan and enjoy the ride.
He came to UH with a plan and has never wavered. We’ve had some gut-wrenching losses (I’m looking at you, Jordan Poole and Tyler Herro). But those losses were just lessons in the journey to something much bigger. Instead of allowing them to be program-crushing losses, games like Michigan and Kentucky motivated this staff and this team to be better. They helped push the program further.
When Oregon State came back to tie the game, I couldn’t help but think back to those losses to the Wolverines and Wildcats. Was it another “here we go again?” or were those lessons going to push us forward? We know the answer. As Kelvin Sampson said after the game, “you can’t be afraid to fail. You can’t be afraid to make a shot. You can’t be afraid to miss a shot, either.” This team wasn’t afraid. They overcame everything and won the Region.
Seeing the Coogs hugging on the court, seeing Sampson and his son and daughter hugging and crying was a weird feeling. Obviously, I was happy and a bit relieved. But it was a weird happy. Getting to the Final Four is a huge deal. But getting there didn’t feel like I thought it would.
Maybe it is because this wasn’t some fluke. This isn’t because all the stars aligned and we went on some miracle run. This was 7 years in the making. This started with the first team Sampson put together at UH and it kept building every team after. Houston does not get to this point without the buy-in from the first team, or the 2nd, or the 3rd.
UH doesn’t get here without Galen Robinson being the first big-time player to take a chance on Kelvin and the Coogs. It doesn’t happen without the New Orleans boys that went to UMass then found their way to Cullen, DeJon Jarreau and Brison Gresham. It doesn’t happen without Quentin Grimes leaving Kansas or Reggie Chaney leaving Arkansas. It doesn’t happen without that scorer from Towson, Justin Gorham, buying-in to a different kind of role. It doesn’t happen without the staff believing in Marcus Sasser, leaving him in so he could fight through his shooting slump, knowing that something bigger was in store for him.
And it doesn’t happen without Kelvin Sampson choosing Houston as the place he wanted to rebuild.
Kelvin has preached culture from the get-go but there is no culture without the players living and breathing that culture. It has to be passed on from one team to the next and it has to be the standard that all these players live by. Everyone that was involved from day 1 had a hand in getting to this point. Every season was a step towards this moment. Maybe that is why I had no idea how to feel Monday night. As ecstatic and overjoyed I am that we have reached the Final Four, I always felt that Kelvin would lead us here.