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Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

The postseason tournament for college basketball is often referred to as “March Madness” and “The Big Dance.”

While none of the four Native ball players made it to the tournament’s final weekend, Division I’s lone Native coach still has his dancing shoes on.

Kelvin Sampson, Lumbee, will be coaching in his second Final Four as his second-seeded University of Houston Cougars squad is set to take on no. 1 seed Baylor Bears on Saturday evening in Indianapolis.

Sampson’s team has already made history this tournament, becoming the first team to only face double-digit seeds in reaching the Final Four. The Cougars have eliminated no. 15 Cleveland St., no. 10 Rutgers, no. 11 Syracuse and most recently no. 12 Oregon St.

After Houston beat Oregon State to reach the Final Four, the coach and his wife, Karen, walked over and waved to Cougars fans. Then he celebrated his second Final Four trip by hugging his son and assistant coach, Kellen. His daughter, Lauren, is the team’s director of external affairs.

The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina also shared their congratulations to Sampson and co. after their win Monday night, posting on Facebook in part, “First time to the Final Four for Houston since 1984! Proud of you Kelvin and your amazing team! #lumbeepride.”

An email to the university’s sports information director to interview Sampson went unreturned.

The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is a state recognized tribe and has long fought for federal recognition. Sampson was raised in Pembroke, North Carolina, the city where the tribe is located.

He then got his start in coaching in the 1970s as a graduate assistant under the late Jud Heathcote. Heathcote would ultimately help Sampson get his first head coaching positions at Montana Tech and Washington State, which led Sampson to Oklahoma — where he made his first and only other Final Four appearance in 2002.

Houston forward Justin Gorham, left, head coach Kelvin Sampson and Marcus Sasser (0) celebrate after beating Oregon State during an Elite 8 game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium, Monday, March 29, 2021, in Indianapolis. Houston won 67-61. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Sampson fell short of the national championship year and when it looked like he might make it back in 2008 with Indiana, was forced out before the end of the season because of NCAA violations. Now, 13 years later and a short stroll from the governing body that nearly ended his career, Sampson made it back with some of the same lessons he learned from Heathcote all those years ago.

“Jud was unique, he was a hard worker, he came from humble beginnings,” Sampson said, noting that Heathcote’s top student, Magic Johnson, texted him Monday. “His greatest strength was his ability to get the most out of people. But the guy that influenced me the most that I would give the most credit to was my father, John W. Sampson. I wish he and my mother were here tonight to see this.”

Sampson led the Cougars to a great season, finishing the regular season with an overall record of 23-3 and then winning the conference tournament and being crowned champions of the American Athletic Conference. Houston boasts the country’s second best defensive team, allowing just 57.6 points per game.

While Houston has a great defense, the team opposite of them Saturday evening possess an equally powerful offense.

The Baylor Bears had the sixth best scoring offense on the season, dropping 83.0 points per game on opponents over the year.

This is Houston’s sixth trip to the Final Four and first since 1984 when the school went to three straight from 1982-84. They lost back-to-back championships in the latter two years during the famed Phi Slamma Jamma days.

A title this year would be the school’s first NCAA championship.

Tip-off for Saturday’s game is at 5:14 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.