Sampson, Cougars bask in most 'satisfying win'

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As the closing seconds of the greatest of overtime escapes played out in front of him Sunday night, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson could have turned his head to the right and seen four of his starters on the bench instead of on the floor.

And yet the Cougars, the South Region’s No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, had just enough for just long enough to survive with a 100-95 overtime victory versus 9-seed Texas A&M at FedExForum. It means the Cougars (32-4) now move on to the Sweet 16 to face Duke on Friday in Dallas.

“[It is a] perfect record for Houston to have four players foul out and still find a way to win,” Sampson said. “All the years I’ve been doing this I don’t know I’ve had a more satisfying win.”

The Cougars became the first team since 1987 to win an NCAA tournament game when it had at least four players foul out. Jamal Shead, L.J. Cryer, Ja’Vier Francis and Emanuel Sharp all took permanent seats on the bench after picking up their fifth foul, and J’Wan Roberts finished the game with four fouls.

It all put Houston walk-on Ryan Elvin at the free throw line with 17 seconds left in overtime. Elvin, with the Aggies’ faithful at full volume, hit one of two to put the Cougars up 99-95.

“I was shocked he missed one,” Shead said. “He works like we work.”

As Sampson added, “Regardless of who we put on the floor tonight … we have a tremendous, tremendous culture. … Our kids are built for that.”

Sampson said things were already wobbly enough at halftime that he invoked Reggie Chaney’s name and memory to the team. The Cougars wear No. 32 patches on their jerseys in memory of Chaney, a player on their Final Four team in 2021 who died of a fentanyl overdose in August, just before he was set to play professionally overseas.

Sampson said that when he got to the locker room at halftime, he asked his players, “What would Reggie do?” Sampson then added after the game: “That was for big Reg.”

Sharp led the Cougars with 30 points, and Shead and Cryer added 21 and 20, respectively.

Houston will make its fifth consecutive trip to the Sweet 16. This is the fourth straight season it has won at least 32 games.

Sampson had lamented the Cougars’ injury issues in their blowout loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 championship game, but he expressed hope when they arrived here that the availability of Roberts (shin) as well as Ramon Walker Jr.’s return from a late-season knee injury would help the cause.

But the whistles started to pile up in the first half Sunday night and continued thereafter. So much so, by the time it was over, Texas A&M (21-15) had shot 45 free throws, making 29.

“They’re phenomenal,” Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams said. “And a lot of it is the physicality that they play with.

“I thought it was a heavyweight fight.”

The Cougars looked to be comfortably in position to move on in the bracket when Sharp hit one of his seven 3-pointers to give Houston a 74-61 lead with 3:39 to play in regulation. But the fouls kept coming. And so did the Aggies, with plenty of their end-of-half and end-of-game “specials,” as Williams calls them.

One of those specials came in the final second of regulation.

Trailing 86-83, Aggies forward Andersson Garcia scooped a bouncing ball off a crafty inbounds pass beyond the top of the key and hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send it to overtime. Garcia had made eight 3-pointers all season.

“It shows how resilient we are this season,” said Aggies guard Wade Taylor IV, who played a team-high 44 minutes.

In a grind-it-out overtime period, the Cougars got a 3-pointer from Sharpe before he fouled out and five points from Shead before he fouled out to help wrap up the win.

“At that moment, we needed belief, we needed toughness,” Sampson said of the overtime. “Everybody was fouling out.

“As good as [Texas A&M] played, we had the best player on the floor — Jamal Shead — and sometimes that’s all you need.”

Tyrece Radford led the Aggies with 27 points.

Taylor, who had seven 3-pointers in the Aggies’ first-round win over Nebraska on Friday night, was limited to 5-of-26 shooting with Cougars uber-defender Shead in front of him for virtually every minute until fouling out.

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