National Men

Penders returns to NCAA tournament as Houston beats UTEP

By Associated Press
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010

As Tom Penders climbed to the top of a ladder to clip down the nets, his players gathered around to make sure he wasn't going to fall.

At age 64, "Tournament Tom" is headed back to the NCAAs -- with a little different hop in his step.

Kelvin Lewis scored 28 points and made six three-pointers to break a Conference USA championship game record, and Houston surged past No. 25 UTEP for an 81-73 victory in Tulsa on Saturday to claim its first NCAA tournament berth in 18 years.

"We're dancin', we're dancin', " said Penders, in his sixth season as coach of the Cougars (19-15). "I may be dancin' a little slower than I was the last time I went, but we're dancin'."

Penders is in for the first time since 1999, when he was at George Washington, and joins an elite fraternity of eight coaches who have taken four schools to the NCAA tournament -- including Rick Pitino, Eddie Sutton and Lon Kruger. Penders also put Rhode Island on the bracket in 1988 and then did it eight times in his 10 years at Texas.

"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."

Randy Culpepper scored 20 points and Derrick Caracter added 18 for UTEP (26-6).

-- MORGAN STATE 68, SOUTH CAROLINA STATE 61: The Bears dedicated their season to a stricken teammate, then went out and honored him by ensuring they'll end the year on college basketball's grandest stage: the NCAA tournament.

Morgan State claimed its second straight Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship by beating South Carolina State behind 18 points and 10 rebounds from tournament MVP Kevin Thompson.

League player of the year Reggie Holmes added 17 points for the top-seeded Bears (27-9), who shot 53 percent to overcome 20 turnovers and avenged their only regular season conference loss by becoming the first repeat MEAC champion since Hampton in 2001 and 2002.

Last year's title meant redemption for Coach Todd Bozeman. This one has an even deeper significance for the program: to honor redshirt freshman Anthony Anderson, who had leukemia diagnosed in October and stayed back in Baltimore for chemotherapy. The players are wearing patches with his No. 4 on their jerseys, an idea proposed by Holmes.

Khalif Toombs had 15 points to lead the third-seeded Bulldogs (18-14).

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