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Gilliam, Shepherd spark SMU to Conference USA tournament title

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- The season likely isn't over for UTEP (No. 24 ESPN/USA Today, No. 18 AP), though it might have felt like it Sunday when Southern Methodist stunned the Miners 73-57 to win the Conference USA tournament and an automatic trip to the NCAA tournament.

It was UTEP's first loss since Dec. 1, a 23-game stretch that helped the Miners get noticed by pollsters and probably set them up for an at-large berth to the dance. It would be the first time in school history UTEP qualified for the NCAA tournament.

"Nobody's real happy right now, but when we step back and look at the fact that we almost ran the table in the regular season and conference tournament, that's a pretty amazing year," UTEP Coach Keitha Adams said. "We didn't make some plays we normally make, especially late in the game, but I think we've made a pretty good case for getting into the tournament."

SMU, which improved to 24-8 and avenged two regular season losses to UTEP, knows it's in. The Mustang used a 17-0 second half run and some incredible free throw shooting to beat the top-seeded Miners.

Brittany Gilliam led the way for SMU with 20 points, and Sharee Shepherd added 17 that included 12-for-12 from the free throw line. Katy Cobb contributed 11 points off the bench and tournament MVP Janielle Dodds had 10 points and 11 rebounds.

"I can say this now because we're in, but I don't think we get in the tournament if we don't win this game," SMU coach Rhonda Rompola said. "We were playing a little conservative there in the second half, but we got some energy back and really won the game at the free-throw line."

SMU led 30-20 early in the second half when UTEP scored 18 straight points. The Miners, who relied on 6-foot-5 center Izabela Piekarska up to that point, got seven points from Natasha Lacy and five from C-USA regular-season MVP Jareica Hughes during the run to snap out of an offensive funk that lasted the first 22 minutes of the game.

Piekarska finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Hughes had 19 points and five assists, but turned the ball over six times. Lacy finished with 15 points and seven rebounds. The only other UTEP player to score was Timika Williams, who had two points.

"We only got contributions from two or three people today and we are much better when we have five people scoring and defending," Piekarska said.

SMU responded to UTEP's run by scoring 17 straight points, capped by a 3-pointer from Cobb that made it 47-38 with 6:18 left in the game. The Mustangs then focused on taking the ball to the basket, where they got fouled.

SMU was 22-of-23 from the line in the last five minutes, including 10 straight in the last minute of the game.

"If SMU misses a couple of free throws, we got a chance there at the end, but they never missed," Adams said. "SMU outplayed us, but I am so proud of this team and what we've done is really incredible."

Piekarska was going virtually 1-on-5 in the first half, when she scored 15 of the Miners' 20 points. She was 6-of-11 from the field while her teammates were a combined 1-of-14.

SMU, meanwhile, spread its scoring among seven players, but blew several chances to open up big leads. The Mustangs led by as many as nine points, but missed six wide-open layups and several more shots from point-blank range.