Playing with an older star-studded group during his sophomore year at Calvert Hall, Justin Gorham found a niche that kept him on the floor.
Pounding the boards became his calling card, and the big payoff came the following year when he tipped home a miss in a buzzer-beating win against John Carroll in the 2015 Baltimore Catholic League championship game.
Now a 6-foot-7, 225-pound redshirt senior forward for the University of Houston, Gorham is doing the exact same thing — this time on the biggest stage as the Cougars prepare for their first appearance in the NCAA tournament Final Four since 1984.
Houston (28-3) will meet Baylor in Saturday’s first semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis at 5:14 p.m. Gonzaga takes on UCLA in the other semifinal with the championship game set for Monday.
For Gorham, the path to fulfilling a basketball dream was unconventional. He spent his first two college years at Towson University, took a one-year break and then earned a starting job in his second season at Houston.
It was all well worth it.
Having started every game this season, he comes into Saturday’s game averaging 8.5 points and 8.9 rebounds, with his 3.9 offensive rebounds per game seventh best in the nation.
Grinding with a defense-first approach has been the Cougars’ staple this season under coach Kelvin Sampson, who described Gorham’s contributions succinctly: “Justin has been our identity.”
Houston has limited opponents to a paltry 57.6 points per game this season. Gorham’s highlight performance in the tournament came in the Cougars’ 62-46 win over Syracuse in the Sweet 16, when he finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
“We rely on two things — rebounding and defense,” Gorham said. “That’s how we win games, and a big part of our game is offensive rebounding, so I really don’t focus on points too much. I feel if I rebound the ball and do the little things to help my team win, the points will come. So I just have a rebound-first mindset and that helps me be one of the best rebounders in the nation.”
Gorham is quick to credit his late father, Jerry, who died from cancer during Justin’s freshman year at Towson, in helping him develop as a player.
“My father, he was my first coach, my first trainer. He put the ball in my hands,” Gorham said. “So just reaching this stage, I know he would love to see me here because that’s the goal he had for me, to compete at the highest level.
“I think about him every day, especially out on the court. I think about how he would be coaching me up, telling me what I need to do and don’t need to do. He hated when I didn’t play hard, so I always just go out there and try to play my hardest every game for him, my coaches and my teammates.”
Former Calvert Hall coach John Bauersfeld can attest.
Gorham came to the Cardinals in his sophomore year and fit in seamlessly with his hard work and energy. Led by junior standouts Drew Edwards, Nico Clareth and Evan Phoenix, Calvert Hall had plenty of scoring, so Gorham added valuable intangibles.
“For us, Justin was such a good offensive rebounder and he still makes a living on that and obviously he’s taken it to another level with Coach Sampson,” Bauersfeld said. “His energy was always fantastic. I never had to worry about whether Justin was ready to play, was going to play hard.”
After falling to Mount Saint Joseph in overtime of the BCL title game in 2014, Gorham played the hero the next year as the Cardinals made amends. He was 6-4 at the time, and his buzzer-beating tip-in came over a John Carroll player 5 inches taller.
Now, it’s part of Calvert Hall basketball lore. The effort epitomizes Gorham’s value on the court.
“[Rebounding] is 10% skill and 90% mindset,” Gorham said. “When you see the ball going off the rim, you have to want to go get it and that’s what I want to do. I try to get my team extra possessions on the offensive end and on the defensive end, limit the opposing team’s possessions. So just going after the ball is something that coach Sampson has preached to me my first day on camp — just rebound, rebound, rebound.”
Sampson is grateful Gorham listened. During the offseason, starting forward Fabian White Jr. suffered a torn ACL, leaving a void that has been filled admirably by Gorham.
“When we lost Fabian to the ACL, we thought [Gorham] was a guy we would go to, but I had no idea he was going to be this good,” Sampson said. “He has exceeded our expectations. I didn’t see him as a 10-rebound per game guy. Justin has toughness and heart. He is an example of choosing the right program. The way we play and coach is a perfect fit for him, and the way he plays is a perfect fit for us.
“We were perfect for each other. We are so fortunate that we got Justin.”
After deciding to stay close to his Howard County home coming out of high school, Gorham had two productive seasons at Towson, but felt he needed a change. Sampson’s pitch was that the Cougars weren’t just looking to make the NCAA tournament, but to be competitive and try to win it all. And here they are with Gorham in tow.
“It feels good. As a kid, I always watched the Final Four when I was younger, so this is a dream come true,” he said. “But we’re not celebrating too early because we have two more games that we would love to win.”
NCAA Final Four
HOUSTON VS. BAYLOR
Saturday, 5:14 p.m.
UCLA VS. GONZAGA
Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9