FORT WORTH, Texas — At this very point last season, one of the few accomplishments the Houston Cougars had not achieved under head coach Kelvin Sampson was winning the American Athletic Conference Tournament title. They took care of that and filled that void in last year’s conference tournament, then used it as a springboard that led the Cougars to their first Final Four appearance in 37 years. Houston is hoping that, after Sunday, it will be experiencing March Madness déjà vu.
Fabian White Jr. scored 20 points while Josh Carlton scored 18 as the top-seeded Cougars defeated No. 3 Memphis 71-53 to win their second consecutive AAC Tournament championship at Dickies Arena on Sunday afternoon. The win gives Houston an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament and, save for the 2020 tournament that was cancelled due to COVID, the Cougars will be participating in the Big Dance for a fourth consecutive time, a first for the program since the “Phi Slama Jama” Cougars went to the tournament four straight years from 1981 to 1984.
Only Gonzaga has won more games in the past seasons than Sampson’s Cougars, but this season brought a serious test to their resolve after guard Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, key contributors to Houston’s Final Four run last season, were both ruled out for the season in December due to injury. Houston did start 9-0 in league play before consecutive losses to SMU and Memphis, and another loss to the Tigers in the season finale saw the Cougars drop to 1-3 against the teams that were the No. 2 (SMU) and No. 3 seeds in the tournament.
In the Cougars’ fourth consecutive conference tournament title game, they started to finally put some separation between themselves and the Tigers midway through the first half. White hit a three-pointer at the 6:14 mark that started a 13-4 run, and Carlton’s three-point play opened the lead to 34-22 with just under two minutes left in the half. The lead grew to 14 before the Cougars took a 36-24 lead to halftime.
Memphis roared back behind All-Tournament selection Jalen Duren, and his emphatic dunk capped off a 23-11 run to start the half and pull the Tigers within 51-47 with 6:55 remaining. The Tigers would get no closer, however, as Carlton and White went on a personal 7-0 run to put the game away. Carlton converted another three-point play to push the lead back to seven, and after two White free throws, Carlton for free for a dunk to cap off the game-deciding run.
“Just really proud of our team,” Sampson said after the game. “We’ve had a tough year in some ways. To be able to win the regular season and then win the conference tournament, our kids said it in the locker room, they didn’t want to leave any doubt they were the best team in the conference.”
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Sunday afternoon’s championship game, with all photos taken by Dallas-area photographer Ross James. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 29 pictures in total.