FORT WORTH, Texas — Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson led his team to its fifth consecutive AAC tournament title game with a 69-48 win over Cincinnati in the semifinals on Saturday.
But the longtime leader of a Cougars program chasing a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday did that with a heavy heart.
Sampson’s twin sister, Karen, died on Friday morning, the school announced following his postgame press conference on Saturday. The school said it is unaware of funeral arrangements.
Throughout the week, Sampson’s family members stayed close to him and he had not seemed like himself amid rumblings throughout Dickies Arena that he’d been dealing with a personal matter.
The news followed the injury to Marcus Sasser (17.5 PPG, 39 percent from the 3-point line), who is questionable for Sunday’s title game against rival Memphis – the last AAC title game Houston will participate in prior to a move to the Big 12 next season – with a groin injury. Sasser, who will be a game-time decision on Sunday per the school, missed the bulk of Saturday’s win over Cincinnati after slipping on the floor and suffering the injury.
“He is undergoing treatment at the team hotel tonight and will be re-evaluated by associate athletic director for sports medicine John Houston and team doctors on Sunday,” the school’s statement said. “Marcus is questionable for Sunday’s [AAC title game] against Memphis/Tulane, and his playing status will be a game-time decision.” The school said it does “not anticipate any further announcements on 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 shoulder and tried to keep his spirits high as the visibly frustrated Houston star stood nearby after it was clear he wouldn’t return to Saturday’s game. Earlier in the day, Sasser told ESPN that he felt “grateful” for having the opportunity to play in the conference tournament after missing all but 12 games, including the entire postseason, last year due to a season-ending foot injury.
When an official in the game asked Sasser how he was feeling during a timeout, he said, “I’m alright.”
Other players were ready to help on Saturday.
Sampson told ESPN his young players have matured quickly and become pivotal members of a team that aims to become the first team in NCAA history to both host and participate in the Final Four.
Freshman Jarace Walker, a projected first-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft, finished with 13 points and eight rebounds on Saturday.
“Jarace is very talented and when he uses his talent in the right ways and stays disciplined, he impacts winning,” Sampson said.
J’Wan Roberts, who finished with 16 points and eight rebounds, said the team’s ability to dominate Cincinnati without Sasser showcased their depth.
“It shows how good our team is,” Roberts said after the game. “A lot of people stepped up and that’s expected. … [Sasser] came out of the game and we still had teammates that we know come off the bench and come with that same energy, which just shows a lot about our team.”
Houston can still preserve a top seed in the NCAA tournament without a win on Sunday. But Sasser’s absence will be critical if it lingers. With Sasser on the floor this season, Houston has connected on 53 percent of its shots inside the arc and 37 percent of its 3-point attempts, while holding opponents to 86 points per 100 possessions, according to hooplens.com.