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Jeff Eisenberg

Houston steals a bid, perhaps saves Tom Penders' job

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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As soon as the final buzzer sounded on Houston's stunning 81-73 upset of top-seeded UTEP in the Conference USA final, junior guard Adam Brown made a beeline for the first TV camera he could find.

"Nobody expected it, but we got it done," Brown shouted into the camera.

In truth, none of us did expect this. And how could we?

When the seventh-seeded Cougars began this week's Conference USA tournament, they were a .500 team with a one-dimensional offense and an embattled coach likely one loss away from getting the axe. Now Houston has gone from afterthought to center stage, possibly saving coach Tom Penders' job thanks to an unlikely run of four straight victories to earn the program's first NCAA tournament berth since 1992.

Although Penders had won at least 18 games in each of his first five seasons at Houston, the Cougars had never advanced past the Conference USA tournament semifinals or done enough damage outside their league to merit an at-large bid. As a result, attendance and recruiting has suffered, leading to speculation that Penders might be encouraged to retire after the season.

If the Cougars' unlikely run saved Penders' job and made them the toast of Houston for the next few days, it will also make for a white-knuckle 24 hours in cities like Gainesville, Seattle and Blacksburg. Because UTEP will now make the NCAA tournament as at-large team instead of via Conference USA's automatic bid, Houston's win will cost some unlucky bubble team its spot in the field.

Had you told bubble teams that UTEP would lead by nine with eight minutes to go and that the nation's leading scorer, Aubrey Coleman, would make just 4 of 20 shots, they probably would have felt somewhat safe. UTEP failed to hold that lead, though, because Coleman's much-maligned supporting cast sank some big jumpers and then the Miners got uncharacteristically tentative and turnover-prone as the pressure intensified.

When Penders coached at Texas earlier in his career, he became known as Turnaround Tom or Mr. March as a result of some unexpected runs during college basketball's biggest month.

On Saturday, Turnaround Tom added another chapter to his legacy.

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