By Associated Press
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010; D08
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).
-- KANSAS 72, KANSAS STATE 64: Marcus Morris had 18 points, Tyrel Reed added 15 and the No. 1 Jayhawks held off the ninth-ranked Wildcats in Kansas City, Mo., for their seventh Big 12 tournament title.
Kansas (32-2) labored through a physical, defense-dominated first half and used a small spurt midway through the second to beat its in-state rivals for the third time this season. Coming off a sixth straight regular season title, the Jayhawks will likely be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament when the brackets are announced Sunday.
Kansas State (26-7) had never beaten Kansas in six tries at the Big 12 tournament and had lost 40 of 42 meetings since 1994, but had hopes of winning its first conference championship since 1980. Instead, the Wildcats go into Selection Sunday still hoping for a high seed after setting a record for wins this season.
-- WASHINGTON 79, CALIFORNIA 75: In Los Angeles, Quincy Pondexter scored 18 points and Isaiah Thomas added 16 as the Hukies rallied to win the Pacific-10 tournament.
Venoy Overton hit two free throws with 2.1 seconds left for third-seeded Washington (24-9), which emphatically salvaged its inconsistent regular season with seven straight wins.
Washington gets the Pac-10's automatic NCAA tournament bid with a dramatic win over the Golden Bears (23-10), who also are likely headed to the NCAAs with their first regular season league title in a half-century.
-- OHIO 81, AKRON 75: Freshman D.J. Cooper scored 23 points and made three big plays in overtime as the Bobcats capped a stunning run through the Mid-American Conference tournament in Cleveland.
Ninth-seeded Ohio (21-14) became the lowest-seeded team to win the MAC title. The Bobcats did it by knocking off top-seeded Kent State, fourth-seeded Miami (Ohio) and finally the third-seeded Zips (24-10).
Ohio's Armon Bassett scored 25 to earn tournament MVP honors.
-- VERMONT 83, BOSTON UNIVERSITY 70: Four days after Evan Fjeld's mother died of cancer, the forward and his Catamounts teammates outlasted the Terriers in Burlington, Vt., for the America East Conference championship and an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
"I didn't have the greatest game," said Fjeld, a 6-foot-9 inch junior from Durham, N.C. "But these guys have picked me up all week, been there for me. And I knew that I wasn't playing well and it was all right, because they were going to be there for me one more time."
Marqus Blakely scored 24 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and dominated the glass down the stretch as Vermont (25-9) earned its first NCAA bid since 2005.
Boston finished at 19-13.
-- SAM HOUSTON STATE 64, STEPHEN F. AUSTIN 48: In Katy, Texas, Gilberto Clavell scored 21 points to lead the Bearkats to the Southland Conference tournament championship.
The win gave top-seeded Sam Houston State (25-7) its second NCAA tournament berth and the first since 2003.
The Bearkats never trailed in this one after taking advantage of poor first-half shooting by Stephen F. Austin to build a big lead. The Lumberjacks never got back within single digits.
Jereal Scott had 13 points for Stephen F. Austin (23-9), which won the tournament last year.
-- SAN DIEGO STATE 55, UNLV 45: Kawhi Leonard scored 16 points, grabbed a career-best 21 rebounds and sank all eight of his free throws in the final two minutes as the Aztecs captured the Mountain West Conference title in Las Vegas.
Fourth-seeded San Diego State (25-8) earned the league's automatic NCAA bid, although third-seeded UNLV also burnished its NCAA credentials during the week.
The Runnin' Rebels (25-8) hope to join San Diego State, No. 8 New Mexico and No. 14 BYU in the field that's announced Sunday.
-- UC SANTA BARBARA 69, LONG BEACH STATE 64: Orlando Johnson had 20 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists to lead the Gauchos to the Big West tournament title in Anaheim, Calif.
James Nunnally added 19 points and six rebounds for top-seeded UCSB (20-9), which has won nine of 10 entering its first NCAA tournament since 2002.
Casper Ware had 19 points for the 49ers (17-16).
-- ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF 50, TEXAS SOUTHERN 38: The Golden Lions earned their first NCAA tournament berth by winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game in Bossier City, La.
Tavaris Washington scored 14 points and Allen Smith had 11 as Arkansas-Pine Bluff (17-15) won in front of a large contingent of its fans. The Tigers finished 17-16.