March Madness 2024: Houston walk-on Ryan Elvin delivers after Cougars came through for unlikely team hero



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MEMPHIS, TENN. —- Two minutes into overtime of an unhinged second-round NCAA Tournament barnburner with Texas A&M, Houston guard Emanuel Sharp looked at walk-on Ryan Elvin and delivered a message.

“Stay ready,” Sharp told Elvin. 

Sharp had just become the third Houston starter to foul out after scoring a career-high 30 points. Star point guard Jamal Shead then became the fourth with 18 seconds left in overtime. With an already injury depleted roster growing thinner by the possession in a game featuring more than 50 fouls, coach Kelvin Sampson was running out of options.

It was Elvin’s time to shine. The 6-foot-1 senior was “pretty nervous,” he admitted later. But he was ready. He’d prepared his whole life for this.

With a trip to the Sweet 16 hanging in the balance and every fan inside FedExForum standing, Elvin entered, cold off the bench, and was fouled immediately after receiving an inbounds pass. He made one of his free throws and turned a one-possession game into a two-possession game. 

That critical point forced the No. 9 seed Aggies into desperation mode and proved critical in cementing the 100-95 overtime victory that saved the Cougars from being the first No. 1 seed to be bounced from the Big Dance. 

It was a point that would have made Elvin’s father, Scott, proud.

“He was with me tonight,” Elvin told CBS Sports in the victorious Houston locker room. “I knew on that free throw how many we’d shot together. I knew I was prepared.”

When Scott died at age 50 in 2021, Ryan began to doubt if he should continue with the Cougars entering his sophomore season. 

“I was emotional because of how much he meant to my basketball career,” said Elvin, who practiced constantly with his father as a child. “Even vacation some places,” he recalled. “Basketball was a big part of my life growing up, so we shot anywhere pretty much.”

But Elvin isn’t just a walk-on, and the Cougars weren’t going to let him walk away. Shead calls him “a pillar of our culture” — high praise from a prominent member of a program on its way to a fifth consecutive Sweet 16.

Six days before Houston’s 2021-22 season opener, Sampson and the Houston staff made the 2 ½-hour drive to Round Rock, Texas, to support Ryan at his father’s funeral.

“They were there,” Elvin said. “I was away from the team for, like, a week and got texts every day, calls checking in and all of that.”

With his mother’s encouragement, Elvin returned to the team and was met with immediate love — even getting “bum-rushed” by his teammates upon arrival. “Everyone was so happy I was back,” Elvin told CBS Sports.

“I think about it every day,” he added. “If that was to happen and I wasn’t in this program, what would my life be like? It’s hard to imagine, because it’s been such a godsend to be around these people. I don’t think I would have been able to deal with it, honestly, if I wasn’t around this great group of people.” 

At Cedar Ridge High School outside of Houston, Elvin was an All-District performer but not a Division I prospect; he was pursued by Division III programs that would have offered him playing time not available to him at Houston. But Elvin had a bigger picture in mind: he wants to be a coach, and the opportunity to learn under a legend like Sampson was too good to pass up.

“I kind of made the decision based on that,” Elvin said. “Just trying to really think about my future. It was a tough decision. I made the right decision, and I’m so happy to be a part of it.”

In four seasons, Elvin has never played more than seven minutes against a Division I opponent. The only start of his career came on Senior Day earlier this month against Kansas, when he played the game’s first 2:01 before checking out. With the Cougars up big on the Jayhawks late in the second half, he returned and scored seven points in the final minutes as the crowd roared.

That’s the reality for Elvin, much the same as it is for most walk-ons. He gets to play once the outcome is no longer in doubt — or, as in Sunday’s case, when there is no one else available. But outside the lines, Elvin plays a role that surpasses what’s expected from most non-scholarship players in Division I programs.

“He goes to the grocery store and buys groceries and cooks in his apartment and invites the team over,” Sampson said. “He’s just one of those guys. Somebody needs a ride, Ryan’s always taking care of him. He’s the guy on the team that, when they need advice, they go to Ryan.”

Sampson and Houston’s players also rave about Elvin’s work ethic, which helps set the tone for the whole program.

“Basketball is what I love to do,” Elvin said. “I’ve never been the most talented or physically gifted, so the way I try and one-up people is being a gym rat and working as hard as possible. Whatever happens, I’ll know that I put my all into it. My dad instilled that in me. My mom, too — to be a hard worker. Work as hard as you can. That’s how I got to where I was at Houston.” 

It’s also how Elvin delivered on college basketball’s biggest stage on Sunday night with his team’s season hanging in the balance. 

The Houston basketball family once offered Ryan a refuge in a dark moment. With the Cougars facing a bleak situation on Sunday night, he returned the favor and helped save their season.

“It’s meant everything,” Elvin said. “Everything. Never would have thought I’d lose my dad. But they were with me for sure.”

Sampson summoned Elvin once more after the game — first to hug him, and then to give him the honor of stamping Houston’s logo onto the next round of the bracket. 

Up next for the Cougars is a showdown with No. 4 seed Duke on Friday in Dallas. You probably won’t see Elvin in that one. But if the situation calls for it, he will be ready.

“You never give up and see what happens,” Elvin said. “Work hard every day and good things will happen.”





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