Recall December 23, 2021. That’s the day Kelvin Sampson called Marcus Sasser’s broken foot “the worst possible news” regarding his team.
That dark day was calamitous on all fronts: Tramon Mark had surgery the day before and was gone for the year, Taze Moore came down with COVID, Kyler Edwards left the previous night’s game with a badly sprained foot requiring an MRI, Josh Carlton called and said he might have COVID, and Sampson was told that Marcus Sasser broke his foot and was out for the season. It had been a day.
So when Sasser slipped on the floor and fell in immediate pain during Saturday’s game against Cincinnati, fans in Dickies Arena let out an audible gasp. And when Sampson realized who was down, his mind must have – however briefly – flashed to that dark December day. After UH’s 69-48 win, Sampson explained his thoughts about Sasser’s spill.
“You know, we always say pain is an opinion,” the head coach relayed. “Some kids have a high opinion, and some kids have a low opinion. Marcus doesn’t go down. He never misses practice. Never misses a rep. He’s always there. So when he went down, I was concerned for him.”
While Sampson grappled with his initial thoughts, his star point guard Jamal Shead went to work. Shead says that he always knows what Sampson wants from him, and at that moment, he instinctively knew that he had to rally the freshmen guards that would be playing for extended minutes. Shead needed to encourage those freshman guards – Emanuel Sharp, Terrance Arceneaux, and Jarace Walker – imploring them to step up. He explained they did not have time to worry about Marcus. Cincinnati was coming now, and worry would take their focus off the game.
The injury came about seven minutes before halftime against Cincinnati. The Cougars’ lead had been cut to eight, and the Bearcats were threatening. But thanks to J’Wan Roberts, Jamal Shead, and that platoon of freshmen, which also included center Ja’Vier Francis, UH methodically crushed Cincinnati over the final 26 minutes to advance to the American Conference title game.
Shead’s repeated reassurance of Sharp and Arceneaux about being ready to go and making this their game helped them immensely. Shead’s trial by fire after Sasser’s 2021 injury helped him lead from the front.
“We didn’t have him (Sasser) last year; we didn’t have Tramon last year,” J’Wan Roberts said, “and we still had a great year…we still have confidence in our other players that can step up.”
Those freshmen helped the Cougars to hold Cincinnati to two field goals until halftime, allowing UH to build the lead to 15. After the break, Cincinnati made a brief run to get back into the game, but the on-the-fly lineup shut that down quickly.
Roberts, who had one total point against Memphis and ECU in the last week, got his swagger back as Kelvin Sampson called his number on the game’s first play. Roberts missed a hook shot but immediately got the rebound and laid it in.
“Coach specifically ran that play just for me to get in my groove,” Roberts said. “Once I got going, I just got the game to come to me instead of forcing it.”
Roberts scored nine of his 16 points and grabbed six of his eight rebounds in the second half. When the Bearcats got within nine, Roberts and Shead teamed for an 8-0 run in response, highlighted by big hustle plays that are a program staple.
After missing a free throw, Tramon Mark tipped it to Roberts, who tossed it in from the restricted arc.
Down the court, J’Wan tipped a Bearcat miss to Shead, and after Mark missed and Cincinnati grabbed the rebound, Roberts ripped the ball away to give the Cougars an extra possession. Seconds later, Shead knocked down a three and forced the Bearcats to call a timeout.
After making 32 field goals against Wichita State a day before, Cincinnati was held to just 13 made shots against Houston on 25% shooting. Sharp and Arceneaux played 51 vital minutes – 31 in the second half – in their coming-of-age moment.
“Terrance never misses practice. Emanuel doesn’t miss practice,” Sampson explained. Those guys go against Marcus (in practice)…Marcus had a hand in those guys playing well tonight because they practice against him every day, against Jamal, against Tramon.”
In addition to his leadership, Shead orchestrated the Cougars’ offense, going 4/5 in the second half and dishing nine of the team’s 16 assists. With Sasser questionable for the title game against Memphis, it will likely take more quality minutes from the freshmen and an extra offensive boost from guys like Shead and Roberts.
After the game, UH players were united in telling Sasser not to rush back for the title game vs. Memphis. They worry playing could mean reaggravating the injury and pleaded with him to take his time. They want Sasser at his best when it matters most.