FORT WORTH, Texas — Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson led his team to its fifth consecutive AAC Tournament title game with a 69-48 victory over Cincinnati in the semifinals on Saturday.
But a longtime leader of the Cougars program did so with a heavy heart in the pursuit of a No. 1 seed on election Sunday.
Sampson’s twin sister, Karen, died Friday morning, the school announced Saturday after her postgame press conference. The school said it was not aware of funeral arrangements.
Throughout the week, Sampson’s family members were by his side, and he didn’t seem himself to be dealing with a personal matter amid the noise throughout Dickeys Arena.
The news follows an injury to Marcus Sasser (17.5 ppg, 39% from 3), who is questionable for Sunday’s title game against rival Memphis — the last AAC title game Houston will attend before moving to the Big 12 next season — with a groin injury. Sasser, who will be a game-time decision Sunday for the school, missed most of Saturday’s win over Cincinnati after slipping on the floor and suffering the injury.
“He remains under treatment at the team hotel tonight and will be reevaluated by associate athletic director of sports medicine John Houston and team doctors on Sunday,” the school’s statement said. “Marcus is questionable for Sunday [AAC title game] against Memphis/Tulane, and his playing status will be a game-time decision.” The school said it “does not expect any further announcements about his status until closer to Sunday’s game time.”
Sasser was initially listed as “probable to return” before his status changed at halftime.
Sasser’s teammates put their hands on his shoulders and tried to keep his spirits high as the visibly disappointed Houston star stood nearby after it became clear he would not return to Saturday’s game. Earlier in the day, Sasser told ESPN he felt “grateful” to play in the conference tournament after missing all but 12 games, including the entire postseason, last season with a season-ending foot injury.
When a game official asked Sasser how he was feeling during the timeout, he said, “I’m fine.”
Other players were ready to help on Saturday.
Sampson told ESPN that his young players have matured quickly and become key members of a team that aims to become the first team in NCAA history to host and participate in the Final Four.
Freshman Jarres Walker, a projected first-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft, finished with 13 points and eight rebounds on Saturday.
“Jarus is very talented and when he uses his talent the right way and is disciplined, he makes an impact in wins,” Sampson said.
J’Wan Roberts, who finished with 16 points and eight rebounds, said the team’s ability to dominate Cincinnati without Sasser shows its depth.
“It shows how good our team is,” Roberts said after the game. “A lot of people have stepped up and that’s to be expected. … [Sasser] came out of the game and we still had teammates who we know come off the bench and bring that same energy, which shows a lot about our team.”
Houston can protect the top seed in the NCAA Tournament without a win Sunday. But Sasser’s absence will be critical if it lasts. With Sasser on the floor this season, Houston has connected on 53% of its shots inside the arc and 37% on 3-point attempts, while holding opponents to 86 points per 100 possessions, according to hooplens.com.