HOUSTON HEAD COACH KELVIN SAMPSON
“That is two great games that we have played against SMU. The one in Dallas could have gone either way, and this one could have gone either way too. We have a system that we play in, and we don’t change it if somebody is in or if somebody is out; we play the way we play. In the second half, we had a good plan. They have an advantage on the block, but we had an advantage 15 feet away. Devonta’s (Pollard) job was to get to the free-throw line. It would have been nice if he could have mixed in a few more made free throws in there. I felt like we could drive their bigs.
We started off the game fine. We got a lot of easy baskets. Galen (Robinson, Jr.) is one of those point guards that fits how we play even though he is a freshman. When he went down we obviously struggled for a little bit, but there were a lot of turning points in that game. One was when we were down by 11. Our fight is part of our identity. Our kids stayed together. Our kids don’t back down; they’re tough kids. We compete and play with an identity.
Our shot selection in the second half was outstanding; we took good shots. We shot 54 percent from the field, but we worked for those shots. I didn’t like our shot selection in the first half. I got onto them a little bit at halftime. I fussed at them pretty good about the shot selection. In the second half, we played to the third side. When you play to the third side, meaning the side that you enter, the ball is swung to the second side, and then back to third side then attack. Usually a defense will loosen up for you and that is when you have to try and find driving angles.
Devonta made some huge plays, LeRon (Barnes), (Damyean) Dotson, Galen, but maybe the guy that turn the game for us was Bertrand (Nkali). When Bertrand came into the game he had a physicality and a rim protection that made our team tougher inside. It is not enough to play tough; you have to play physical. Bertrand brought some physicality, he took a charge and is such a high character kid. He sits on the bench and doesn’t get to play as much as he likes, or as much as he should, I don’t know maybe he should play more. Then he goes in there and does that. It says a lot about his attitude. I’m lucky to coach a guy like Bertrand.”
On beating SMU without guard Rob Gray, Jr.
“It says a lot about our program. I would much rather have a great program than a great team. There are a lot of good teams out there, but good teams come and go. Good teams don’t handle adversity well. There is a difference between a good program and a good team. When I took over this program in April 2014 my goal was to build a great program. Obviously, we have come along fast to be able to be where we are at.
This team can get better. When we play the right way, share the ball, attack the glass, and defend with a purpose we can be a good team. There are a lot of things that I see, even though we are in the month of February, that we can continue to get better at. Their team is a finished product; ours is not; we are still building this thing; we are nowhere near complete. Our team can still get better. We have had a lot of adversity.
Not having Rob (Gray Jr.) either game, he scored as easy 31 points as you can score on Saturday; he is our best offensive player. The fact that you win without a guy like that speaks volumes to your identity and what you value.
Our core values of our program will be on the defensive end, the rebounding part. We are a great offensive rebounding team, not good, great. We are top 20 in the nation, and there are 351 of those teams and we are really good at that. We have four guys that can offensive rebound. Devonta (Pollard), (Danrad) “Chicken” (Knowles), LeRon (Barnes), (Damyean) Dotson, and when Bertrand (Nkali) is in there he can cause problems. That is something that we started back in China.”
On the fan turnout
“It almost brings a tear to your eye because of where we were last year and earlier this year. When Mack Rhoades and President Renu Khator came to me and talked to me about this job, I identified two areas that were poor. One was facilities, and the second was fan support, the apathy. I stepped back and said that if those are the problems then we are going to be fine. Whereas some people saw it as a problem, I saw it as an opportunity. It is a great opportunity.
First, it starts with administration. Coaches don’t win championships; administrators do; I made sure they understood that. If they want us to win championships, then they have to build better facilities. With fan support, two things had to happen, style of play and we had to win.
Here we are in our second year and we are one game out of first in the conference; who would have ever thought that? Will we win the league? I don’t know, maybe not, but that is ok because winning conference was never our goal to start the season. We played ourselves into ‘let’s see what happens now.’ We have a big game Sunday. I like my team, I like how far they have come. When we started this thing we didn’t know each other, there were seven new guys. SMU has four starters back from last year and we have seven new guys. We have put this thing together and the guys have really bought into our culture and into each other and it says a lot about them.”
On the energy of the crowd
“It makes a huge difference. I’m so happy our kids get to experience that. Our coaching staff has experienced that, but LeRon Barnes, L.J. Rose and Danrad Knowles have not. Those guys that have played here before we got here they’ve never seen that. I was so happy for them. I’m really proud of our fans.
Lauren (Sampson) has been our liaison with the students. She’s had me at Dr. Simon Bott’s class twice and at all of these dorms. I knew that the work she had put in with taking me around, if we started winning, those kids would start identifying. Now that we’re winning, they’ll come back.
The LSU game was a huge crowd, but tonight was our crowd. There are a lot of people who came to the LSU game to see Ben Simmons, and that’s OK. I would have come to see him too, but I would have left impressed with Houston. Tonight, those were our people, and I was really proud of that. A lot of those people had not seen us play and they’ll come back. That’s how you get this thing going, and we’re going to get it going. We’re going to build this program up and I’m excited about it.”
On what he tells the players before the game
“All I ever talk to our team about is how we’re going to win this game. I stay in the moment. We work at it. Our practices are really good. We had a long day on Saturday, a 7 a.m. wake-up, and we got on the bus and went to the gym in North Carolina at 10:30. It was a double overtime game, so we didn’t get out of there until almost 4. We had to get on a plane to get back here late Saturday night.
We were fortunate we only played them once, so we had an idea of what we wanted to do. We knew, without Rob (Gray Jr.), we were going to have to change our game plan just a little bit because of what we had put in with him there. We also knew that we could attack them in some areas and hurt them. Having a short Sunday and having this game tonight speaks volumes of the character and toughness of this team. Make no mistake, SMU is an outstanding college basketball team we beat. They’re good. They are hard to play against.”
On James Harden being in attendance
“He texted and called me, so I knew he was coming. We’re 2-0 with James (Harden), so he can always come. James and I have a good relationship. I’m glad he got to see a good game.”
HOUSTON SENIOR FORWARD Devonta Pollard
On the 21-4 run to take the lead
“We focused on two things, defending and rebounding. Everything else took care of itself, and that’s what Coach has been preaching day after day, game after game. Just focus on that and everything will fall into place. Just play hard, and that’s what we did. We came, and it went our way.”
On improving his game
“There were a couple of games where I couldn’t make the shot, and I couldn’t make the free throw. I just couldn’t do anything offensively. As a basketball player, if you’re not strong mentally, that starts to mess with your head. That’s what happened to me. Having Coach Sampson being as good of a coach as he is, he knew that. He had talked with me and told me ‘don’t worry about the shot, just focus on defense and rebounding and it will come to you.’ I kept going to the gym in my off time and working on my game. Come game time, I focused on defensive rebounds, and I was back to myself. I can’t let my team down.”
On the energy of the crowd
“Having a great crowd helps your energy as a team, but for myself individually, I haven’t been playing in front of a huge crowd my whole life. So to be honest, playing in front of a big crowd like that gets me hyped and pumps me up and gets me ready to play, but even if the crowd wasn’t that big I would still be ready to play.”
HOUSTON JUNIOR FORWARD Bertrand Nkali
On what he provided the team
“I just played my defense. I went out there and did my job. We needed defense because they would score easily inside, so I figured I had to go there and be physical to make them stop. We really needed that so we could get our offense in.”
SMU HEAD COACH LARRY BROWN
On SMU’s plays down the stretch
“The last 15 minutes of the game, their effort was so much greater than ours. They nearly doubled our rebounds with about five minutes to go. They made every effort play, which is something that we did not hang our hat on all year. We didn’t match their energy. Their energy was great, the crowd was great.
Kelvin (Sampson) had them prepared. Everyone made a contribution in some way, that they came through on every hustle play, every loose ball, every long rebound. They did a much better job.
We shot 29 percent in the second half. The only guy that was really looking to make a play was Nic (Moore). They put so much pressure on him. They were shooting 50 percent mostly late in the clock. When things are going great you have to balance to bank the ball in and make a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Then you have plays in where you have to place it in a call and usually the calls go to the team that is more aggressive, I was amazed that we had a three to tie the game.”
On the bigs’ inside hustle
“I looked at the board; we just didn’t get any rebounds. The last play we had after the second media time out, we didn’t have a defensive rebound. In the first half, we did a good job of controlling the tempo and limiting them to one shot. In the second half, we got up 10 and everything just changed. Their effort was just so much greater than ours, and I thought that was the difference. (Devonta) Pollard played great, but you know (Galen) Robinson Jr. coming back was a factor and (LeRon) Barnes as well. There were so many guys that made great plays that when you walk in their locker room you have to be pretty proud.”
On Jarrey Foster’s game
“He (Jarrey Foster) is going to be fine. He’s just has to get more experience. But those two freshmen have to get used to playing in environments like this.
I was really disappointed with Shake (Milton) in the last 10 to 12 minutes; he didn’t even look at the rim. He is so capable, but that is part of the learning process.
Unfortunately, we were so shorthanded that we used two freshmen in an environment like this. Now every game is going to be like this. We experienced it in Temple as well. We know we’re going to experience this every night; people are going to give us their best shots. They’re going to be prepared for us; we have to learn to embrace it
On their energy carrying over from their last game
“I don’t want to say that but that we had slippage in a lot of areas. In some ways, we are worried about things that are really not important. We were worrying about sharing the ball. Defending, we had 10 assists, and you cannot win like that, not the way we tried to play. We win by doing a great job on the boards, and we haven’t been doing that recently. I’ve seen it, but I also understand that every game would be a lot tougher based on how we started the season. I hope that we have three great days of practice and just try to figure out on how to do better.”
On the atmosphere of the Houston fans
“This was like the old days, the noise and the environment. The first game I coached at the University of Kansas was against Phi Slama Jama. It made feel like the atmosphere was very similar in a lot of ways, which was neat. I remember my mom got mad at me because I scheduled my first game against Phi Slama Jama.