Win over UTEP sends Cougars to NCAA Tournament
EDITOR’S NOTE: The UH men’s basketball team will play Maryland at approximately 8:50 p.m. Friday in Spokane, Wa. in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Before the Conference USA Tournament began, Cougars head coach Tom Penders described his team as “dead men walking” with nothing to lose.
After defeating No. 25 UTEP 81-73 in the C-USA Tournament title game Saturday, UH is alive and well.
The Cougars (19-15) clinched the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 1992 by virtue of C-USA’s automatic bid, which goes to the champion of the conference tournament. With its back against the wall, trailing by nine points with less than nine minutes remaining, UH went on a 25-8 run down the stretch to roll into the Big Dance with a season-high four game win streak.
The Cougars, who became the second-lowest seed (No. 7) to win the C-USA tournament, must wait until Sunday evening to find out who and where they’re playing in next week’s opening round. But head coach Tom Penders, who has now led four teams to the NCAA Tournament, probably won’t mind exercising patience before this go-round.
“This is the most gratifying because, you know, in many ways when I came to Houston it was almost considered ‘mission impossible.’ We came so close a couple of times, maybe with some more talented kids,” he said. “But not as gutty (sic).”
“We’ve had our ups and downs this year, never had a long losing streak but never had a long winning streak either. We had a lot of things that would distract most kids happen, but they overcame everything. … So anyway, we’re dancing. We’re dancing! I may be dancing a little slower than the last time I went, but we’re dancing.”
In what could have been the final game of Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis’ collegiate careers — had the Cougars lost — it was Lewis, not the nation’s leading scorer, who stood out at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.
Lewis (11-of-15 overall, 6-of-10 3-pointers) scored 12 of his game-high 28 points before halftime to offset Coleman’s early struggles. The senior guard picked up the intensity in the second half, scoring seven of UH’s first 10 points after halftime to turn a five-point deficit into a 48-48 deadlock with 14:36 remaining in the game.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Lewis said. “This is everyone’s dream. I don’t even know what to say. I’m just so excited and happy. It feels good to finally be where we need to be. I felt that the whole season we were good enough, but at certain times we didn’t make the right choices in the games.
“But right now, we are clicking, and we are on the right path to get where we want to go.”
A weary Coleman used every ounce of energy he had left, diving for loose balls and slashing through the lanes. However, fatigue kept his shot flat and hampered his ability to penetrate against the lengthy Julyan Stone. Coleman finished with 13 points on 4-of-20 shooting. Coleman’s solution was to play the role of facilitator for the Cougars’ offense, which included recording team highs in rebounds (nine) and assists (six).
“I was kind of burned out, so I said, ‘I’m not going to shoot us out of game,'” Coleman said. “It would have been selfish of me to try and do that. I wanted to do the little things.
“I got some layups and big steals, but everybody came through. That’s making me emotional right now — everybody came through.”
UH’s bench accounted for 14 of the Cougars’ first 28 points, helping the Cougars recover from a 3-of-12 start from the field. Players such as Zamal Nixon (13 points, four assists) and Maurice McNeil (nine points, five rebounds) didn’t dominate on offense, but they made enough shots to keep their team close.
“Zamal Nixon still has mono, and he’s playing out there,” Penders said. “He’s at the latter stages, and Kendrick (Washington) and Mo (McNeil). And this kid (Coleman) has been playing three weeks now with a badly bruised thigh with a hemotoma problem, and he just keeps playing. And it’s great to see different people step up.”
In the second half, the Miners never built a larger lead than seven points until the 8:25 mark. But once UTEP took its biggest lead of the second half, 65-56, the Cougars got the ball back in Lewis’ hands. He made two straight 3-pointers to cut UH’s deficit to 65-62 with 6:50 remaining.
The next trey Lewis connected on gave the Cougars their first lead of the second half, 71-70, with 3:11 left to play. Adam Brown followed with a 3 from nearly 25 feet away off a forceful screen from Coleman to give UH a 74-70 advantage.
On two of UTEP’s next three possessions, the Cougars forced two crucial turnovers that led to consecutive fast-break layups for Coleman and Brown, respectively. With UH ahead 78-72 with 42 seconds left, the Miners were forced to foul and chuck 3s for the rest of the game.
“Wow! These kids, what heart (they have),” Penders said. “What heart; heart and execution.
“It was a gritty, gutty win for our kids. They just refused to die.”
For most of the game, the tag-team of Randy Culpepper (20 points) and Derrick Character (18 points) wreaked havoc on the Cougars’ defense, while Julyan Stone and Arnett Moultrie cleaned the glass more often than a window washer.
Stone and Caracter controlled the interior, using physical play to grab a combined 19 rebounds. Caracter used his large 6-9, 275-pound frame to wear down UH’s forwards, which lead to a team-high eight free-throw attempts.
Culpepper kept the Cougars’ guards off-balance in the first half, displaying range from beyond the arc and speed and athleticism in transition. This led to numerous field-goal attempts from inside of 12 feet, allowing the Miners to shoot 53 percent in the first half.
But in the closing minutes of the second half, the trio of Lewis, Nixon and Brown kept Culpepper in front of them. This, combined with Kendrick Washington’s aggressive defense on Caracter, allowed UH to seize control of the game’s momentum.
UTEP, which most analysts believe had already locked up an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, went on to lose for the first time in 17 games.
“The whole year, it was he said, she said about coach Penders being fired,” Coleman said. “What are they going to say now?”
After the Miners ripped off a 7-0 run to take a 16-7 lead with 13:58 left before halftime, the Cougars began to use crisp passes to jump-start their offense. The end result was three assists on three made shots during a 7-0 run that trimmed UH’s deficit to 16-14 with 11:52 remaining in the first half.
But while Houston’s offense was warming up, its offense appeared to be a step too slow for the Miners. The Cougars were whistled for nine fouls in the first 11 minutes, with starters Sean Coleman and Washington committing two each.
Caracter and Culpepper caused the most trouble, combining for 18 of the Miners’ first 28 points on 7-of-11 shooting.
The Miners took two seven-point leads in the final five minutes of the half, but a Coleman layup with 32 seconds left sent UH into the locker room trailing 43-38.
The NCAA Tournament selection show will air at 5 p.m. Sunday on CBS (Channel 11 in Houston).