TULSA, Okla. -- 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 3-pointers to break a Conference USA championship game record, and Houston surged past UTEP (No. 21 ESPN/USA Today, No. 25 AP) for an 81-73 victory 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. "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 different 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."
Penders brought his seventh-seeded Cougars (19-15) to Tulsa with the mantra that the most dangerous man in a fight was the one with nothing to lose.
They upset four-time defending champion Memphis and likely burst its NCAA bubble in the quarterfinals. Houston probably snatched away another team's tournament berth by snapping the top-seeded Miners' 16-game winning streak to win the title. UTEP is still on track for its first NCAA appearance since 2005.
Randy Culpepper scored 20 points and Derrick Caracter added 18 for UTEP (26-6), which hadn't been on such a roll since its "Glory Road" team won 23 in a row on its way to the 1966 national title. The Miners, who led by nine with 8 minutes to play, were outscored 15-3 down the stretch to lose for the first time since being beaten by the Cougars on Jan. 13.
"What I've always said is I don't like to learn from close losses. I want to learn from close wins," coach Tony Barbee said. "I thought we had matured and grown beyond this point where we wouldn't be ready to play in a game as big as this."
Penders' latest tournament-bound team was drilled on taking care of the ball -- with the nation's second-fewest turnovers and best turnover margin -- and usually can rely on a big outing from national scoring leader Aubrey Coleman.
But with Coleman making only four of his 20 shots and being held to 13 points -- half his average -- the Cougars had to find a new way to win.
Lewis, a senior who transferred from Auburn, filled the void and hit the go-ahead 3-pointer from the right wing with 3:14 remaining. Adam Brown followed with his own 3, after Caracter had thrown the ball away into the backcourt, to make it 74-70.
Caracter bounced back with a basket inside to cut the deficit to two, but Coleman denied UTEP's chance to tie with a steal and fast-break layup with 54.4 seconds left. Zamar Nixon took the ball away from Culpepper on the Miners' next possession, setting up a fast-break layup for Brown, and the Cougars were able to hold on from there.
"Obviously, it was a gritty, gutty win for our kids," Penders said. "They just refused to die."
Houston ended up with 12 3-pointers, one more than it did in beating UTEP the last time, and was 7 for 12 from behind the arc in the second half. Nixon added 13 points off the bench while playing through the later stages of mononucleosis.
"Wow! These kids, what heart," Penders said. "What heart. Heart and execution."
Coleman, who had played the full 40 minutes the previous two days and 116 total minutes over the first three rounds, was 2-for-12 in the first half and also missed his first five shots in the second. Then he stopped taking jumpers and focused on driving to the basket.
"I was kind of burned out, so I said I'm not about to shoot us out of game," said Coleman, who had nine rebounds, six assists and four steals. "I'm about to find my teammates. It would have been selfish of me to try and do that. I wanted to do the little things."
The Cougars scattered all over the floor when the final buzzer sounded, jumping up and down in celebration. Coleman eventually splayed out on the court, wagging his right index finger at a television camera that hovered over his head.
"The whole year, it was he said, she said about coach Penders being fired," Coleman said. "What are they going to say now?"