Bid Thievery: Houston Stuns UTEP In Conference USA Final

Read more at our UTEP blog, Miner Rush.

Tulsa, OK (Sports Network) - Kelvin Lewis stepped up with 28 points and drained six three-pointers, as the Houston Cougars claimed their first Conference USA Tournament title and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992 with an 81-73 victory over No. 25 UTEP.

Aubrey Coleman, the nation's leading scorer, struggled with a 4-for-20 showing from the field to end with 13 points. Lewis, though, hit 11-of-15 shots and 6- of-10 three-point attempts, while Zamal Nixon chipped in 13 points.

The seventh-seeded Cougars (19-15) shot 12-of-25 from beyond the arc to book a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since winning the Southwest Conference in 1992. They were subsequently knocked out in the first round of the NCAAs by Georgia Tech.

Randy Culpepper had 20 points and Derrick Caracter provided 18 with nine rebounds for UTEP (26-6), which had run off 16 straight wins since a loss to Houston back on January 13.

The top-seeded Miners self-destructed down the stretch with turnovers on three of four possessions going into the final minute, handing the Cougars a six- point lead on a pair of fast-break buckets on the last two.

UTEP was also vying for its first-ever Conference USA crown and seemed poised to do so after completing a 15-1 C-USA regular-season schedule. But some sloppy play in the final minutes gave Houston the momentum it needed.

The Miners were seemingly comfortably ahead 65-56 with 8 1/2 minutes to play before an 8-0 Cougar run set up a wild finish. Lewis sparked the comeback stretch with a pair of threes and again struck from long distance for the eventual go-ahead score with 3:15 remaining.

Adam Brown came down and stroked another trey off a UTEP turnover for a 74-70 lead close to a minute later. Caracter briefly stemmed the tide with a jumper to make it a one-possession game, but another turnover led to Aubrey Coleman's fast-break hoop.

Culpepper then threw it away on the next Miner possession, and Brown coasted for a layup and a 78-72 margin with 41.9 seconds to go.

UTEP threw up a bevy of shots in a frantic attempt to gain ground but came away with only a single free throw in the waning moments, while Houston sealed the upset at the line.

Texas-El Paso was able to gain some separation early via a 10-2 run as Culpepper dropped in a jumper for a 16-7 game about 6 1/2 minutes in.

Houston got a pair of dunks from Maurice McNeil on its next two possessions and inched closer with three-pointers from Lewis and Nixon over the next several minutes.

Kirk Van Slyke got a jumper to fall at the midway point for a 19-18 Houston lead, but the Miners were quickly back in front. Culpepper dropped a three with 8 1/2 minutes to go for a four-point lead, then put in consecutive layups for a 35-28 game with under five minutes remaining.

The Cougars continued to use the three-point shot to stay in it, as Sean Coleman and Lewis hit on back-to-back trips down the floor. Aubrey Coleman, who was 2-of-12 for six points in the first half, added a bucket in the closing moments to get within 43-38 at the break.

Lewis stepped up to score the Cougars' first seven points of the second half, and Sean Coleman followed with a three-ball to tie things at 48-all less than five minutes in.

UTEP built its lead back to nine courtesy of an 8-2 run followed by a 7-1 spurt moments later.

Aubrey Coleman came in averaging 25.7 ppg in this tourney and 26.0 ppg for the season. He also leads the team in steals (91)...Lewis, who has scored in double figures in all four postseason games, entered averaging 14.9 ppg this season...McNeil had nine points and five boards for Houston before fouling out with 4:28 to play...Arnett Moultrie checked in with 12 points and eight rebounds for UTEP, which ended with 15 turnovers...Houston shot 52 percent in the second half compared with the Miners' 32.1 percent performance.

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