The moment UCF had waited for since last spring – a chance to beat rival Tulane and exorcise some old demons – helped the Knights also win a second Conference USA championship in three seasons.
Second-seeded UCF showed the resiliency of champions, getting contributions from up and down the roster and winning the battle on the boards in an 85-73 defeat of fourth-seeded Tulane in the C-USA title game.
Winners of 11 straight games – an impressive streak that stretches all the way back to late January – UCF (22-10) earns an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament starting on Friday.
When the game ended, confetti poured out of the rafters at the Don Haskins Center and tears streamed down the face of several UCF players much to the delight of the black-and-gold clad fans who chanted “U-C-F!”
The C-USA championship is a second in three seasons for standout seniors Chelsie Wiley, D’Nay Daniels and Jelisa Caldwell. The Knights secured the title with a 9-0 run after Tulane (22-10) had gotten to within 70-68 with 5:08 to play.
Caldwell, a 5-foot-10 forward from Macon, Ga., was named the C-USA Championship Most Valuable Player after scoring 27 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. She made nine of 22 shots, two 3-pointers and seven of eight free throws.
Wiley, who moved into a tie for the most career 3-pointers (213) in school history, scored 13 points for the Knights. Daniels, also an All-Tournament performer, scored 12 points.
Junior point guard Aisha Patrick scored 11 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out five assists. Ashia Kelly, a spark plug throughout the tournament for the Knights, had 10 points, while sophomore guard Gevenia Carter added 10 more points.
The victory was sweet revenge for a UCF team that was beaten 63-62 by Tulane last season in the C-USA tournament in Tulsa, Okla. The Knights used the defeat as motivation all season, posting the score in players’ lockers and scrawling it all throughout the dressing room.
UCF reached the championship game by rallying back from 15 points down on Thursday against UAB and routing Memphis on Friday in the semifinals. The Knights are attempting to win their second C-USA title in three years after doing so in 2009.
Tulane, the defending C-USA champs, got to the title game a second straight year by upsetting Houston on Friday. Top-seeded Houston had gone 16-0 in conference play during the regular season.
UCF led 41-35 at the break after dominating the glass early on, but the tenor of the game changed somewhat in the first four minutes of the second half. Tulane made six of its first 11 shots to start the second half and stormed to a 47-46 lead.
By the midway point of the second half, the two teams had already exchanged the lead a whopping 14 times in the game. No more than six points separated the teams through the first 30 minutes of play.
UCF defeated Tulane in the regular season by rallying back from 10 points down in the final seven minutes. The Knights won 73-69 in overtime on Feb. 17 by getting clutch performances from Aisha Patrick, Gevenia Carter and Caldwell.
UCF led 41-35 at the half on the strength of its work on the glass and its balanced scoring.
Caldwell and Carter, two of the heroes of UCF’s overtime defeat of Tulane in February, combined for 19 points in the first half. Their production was a welcomed site what with Daniels having played just five minutes in the opening half after picking up two quick fouls.
Caldwell started the game strong and had 11 first-half points, while Carter scored eight points off the bench in the first 20 minutes. Wiley, who struggled mightily with her shot a month ago against Tulane, had eight first-half points, while junior forward Ashia Kelly continued her strong play in the tournament with seven points in the first half.
UCF was the tougher, more physical team early on, owning a decisive 25-12 advantage on the boards. That allowed the Knights to get up 12 more field goal attempts early on.
The Knights jumped to a 19-14 lead early in the game by making eight of their first 14 shots and getting nine early points from Caldwell. The senior guard made four of her first five shots, including a deep 3-pointer from the wing.
Tulane stayed close in the first half by making 52 percent of its shots (14 of 27). Barnes was aggressive on the break, scoring 15 first-half points.
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at [email protected]