The early morning start at the Bok Center for Houston in their C-USA title game against UTEP did not show its effects at any point in the game.
The Cougars and Miners played to a 43-38 score at halftime, with the Miners leading. But, come time for the second half, Tom Penders' Cougars turned the energy switch on and played like they knew they were the champions already.
With 7:38 left in the game, Houston was down by nine, and UTEP was looking for the dagger to stick in the Cougars' upset hopes. That was when Kelvin Lewis made the first of his three big three-pointers. Lewis' trifecta put the momentum back in the hands of his team.
Forty-seven seconds later, after a couple missed shots from UTEP, the senior from Fort Worth drained a second basket from beyond the arc off a steal by Maurice McNeil. That shot put Houston within three...and with the tough defense on both Derrick Caracter and Randy Culpepper, the Cougars were poised to break into the big dance.
Lewis again took the spotlight, and the lead, for Houston with 3:15 left. Catching a pass from Aubrey Coleman, he shot a three and drained it again. This shot gave the Cougars a 71-70 lead, and they never looked back. A 10-3 run to end the game ensued, but not without a good amount of drama that only a game like this can produce.
With less than a minute left Houston was only up by two, 74-72, but thanks to cold shooting by UTEP, and hustle by Coleman and his teammates, Tom Penders got a tournament berth with his fourth team.
Coleman was able to swipe the ball from Julyan Stone and drive down the court for a layup. Twelve seconds later, Lewis pickpocketed Culpepper and found Adam Brown for a layup, putting Houston up 78-72.
After Coleman and Zamal Nixon knocked down free throws to give their team three more points, the defensive coverage inside on Caracter, and the pressure applied to Miners' star Culpepper resulted in three desperate misses by the UTEP guard, and a celebration on the floor of the Bok Center for the Houston Cougars.
The heart and hustle that Houston showed today can be very dangerous to a first round opponent. Tom Penders knows how to coach a basketball team, and with his Cougar team most likely receiving a seed anywhere from a 10 to a 13, they could make a big splash next weekend.