Here's to the Cougars
Joel Blank: A tournament to remember, and another play to forget for UH
If you are University of Houston basketball fan you know that your memories are filled with more heartbreak than they are celebration. Of course there was the Lorenzo Charles put back that prevented the legendary Phi Slama Jama team from winning the national championship, and in the process vaulted Jim Valvano and his NC State Wolfpack to one of the most memorable championship game finishes in NCAA tournament history. There was the loss to Georgetown in the title game in 1984 and the Final Four loss to Michael Jordan and the North Carolina Tar Heels in 1982. So Saturday night's loss to the University of Michigan at the buzzer can now officially be added the legacy of heartbreaking defeats for the Coogs in the NCAA tournament. But with that said, it should not be lost on fans of the program that Coach Kelvin Sampson and his staff did what they said they were going to do when they came to the university, and put Cougar basketball back on the map.
When Sampson left his job as an assistant coach with the Houston Rockets to take over the University of Houston basketball program, he said his goal was to return the team to prominence. He knew the history of the program, from Elvin Hayes to Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler; legends that made their mark while bringing the program and university media attention and publicity. Sampson knew that was then and this was now and now was pretty much night and day different from the successes of the past. He also knew it had been quite some time since the Cougars had won an NCAA tournament game, let alone made a tournament appearance. That's what makes this season so special. The Cougars did what Sampson promised to do and they did so with class and an exciting brand of basketball that energized not only the campus but the entire city of Houston. (At least in the postseason).
Sampson took a team that was predicted to finish in the middle of the pack in the American Athletic Conference and guided them to a third-place finish in the regular season standings and a runner up finish in the Conference tournament. Along the way the team posted several upsets of top 25 teams and impressed critics and experts across the nation. His senior-laden roster was led by the scoring of Rob Gray and the inside presence of Devin Davis. Gray scored 39 against San Diego State, en route to giving the university its first tournament win since 1984. He also scored 62 points in his first two NCAA tournament games, the most since Steph Curry tallied 70 for Davidson. Without Gray's ability to score against Michigan Saturday night, the Cougars wouldn't have been in the game, let alone have a chance to win it. Saturday night the Coogs also would not have been in the game without Davis, who finished with 17 points and seven rebounds and made eight straight free throws down the stretch to keep Houston in the lead. Unfortunately he missed three of his final four from the charity stripe in the final minute of the game and that gave Michigan the glimmer of hope they needed to be able to win it at the buzzer.
In the end, you can scrutinize and criticize just like all of the Sunday morning point guards did in looking back at the way the Cougars lost the game. Sure you can point to missed free throws as well as lapses in the defense in the final seconds of the heartbreaking loss. The Cougars almost got burned by a last-second shot against San Diego State because they allowed a three-quarter court pass to connect and give the Aztecs a clean look at a game winning 3-pointer that luckily bounced off the rim to the left. Saturday night similar defense and a lack of pressure on the in-bounds pass allowed a half-court heave to be completed, as well as the outlet pass that led to the buzzer-beating game-winner from Michigan freshman Jordan Poole. Mistakes that they will surely see on film and wish they had to do over again. But what's done is done. The more important thing is to forget focusing on negatives and concentrate on the fact that this team wasn't given a chance against Michigan and would be headed to the Sweet 16 if not for a miracle finish. U of H came in as underdogs to one of the hottest teams in the bracket, a team that most predicted would be a lock for the sweet 16. The Cougars not only gave them a game and covered the spread, they made a statement that this team and this coach were not only worthy of advancing in the tourney, they were damn good, period..
The fact is, this team was an underdog the entire season and they weren't expected to finish in the top three of the conference let alone qualify for the NCAA tournament. When you factor in that the university hadn't won a game in the tournament since Drexler and Olajuwon led the famous Phi Slama Jama appearances of the early 80s, fans of the Cougars need to tip their cap and be appreciative of this team and this coach and this effort that put the program back on the map. Here's to you coach Sampson and to all of this season's team that contributed to a resurgence in Houston Cougars basketball. With a new arena on the horizon, the new basketball practice facility and a new class of recruits coming in, let's hope the future is bright and the best is yet to come.