TULSA — Tulsa coach Matilda Mossman sounded as stunned as anyone when she let the realization dawn that a season that began 0-5 was going to culminate with the school's second berth in the NCAA tournament.
"I'm just so excited, a chill went through my body when I said we're going to the tournament," said the second-year coach after Tulsa defeated Central Florida 75-66 in the championship game of the Conference USA tournament Saturday. "We've been talking about it, but now it's real."
It's real because tournament MVP Taleya Mayberry willed the Golden Hurricane to victory, scoring 55 points in the final two games. On Saturday, she had 25 points, eight rebounds and four steals in the championship game.
"The difference is we have Taleya Mayberry," Mossman said. "When you have a senior who wants the ball as badly as she did, who wants to take shots as badly as she did, you're going to win."
In addition to earning their second berth in the NCAA tournament (the other came in 2006), the sixth-seeded Hurricane (17-16) also pushed their record over .500 for the first time this season. Tulsa has won 10 of its past 13 games, including four straight in the tournament.
Neither team led by more than three until Mayberry came up with steals and layups on consecutive possessions to give Tulsa a 28-23 lead. She scored again on a rebound and another full-court drive to give Tulsa a 34-27 lead and the Hurricane maintained that advantage to lead 41-34 at the break.
Gevenia Carter led eighth-seeded Central Florida (16-18) with 22 points, including a jumper that pulled the Knights within 70-66 with 2:02 left. But it turned out to be UCF's final basket. Brihanna Jackson added 16 points and Ericka Jones had 14.
"We got good looks, we just didn't convert and we had a couple of turnovers late," said Central Florida coach Joi Williams. "And we didn't get stops when we needed to."
Mayberry is the daughter of former NBA and University of Arkansas star Lee Mayberry, a Tulsa native and current resident.
"He was texting me the entire tournament, giving me his support," said Mayberry, a senior point guard. "We wanted to get this program turned around and leave a legacy. We're thrilled to have done this and be going to the NCAA tournament."
Mayberry hit 10 of 17 from the field and controlled the game with just two turnovers despite heavy pressure from UCF. She knew it was her night when a second-half shot came to rest on the flange behind the rim for nearly five seconds before dropping through. That put Tulsa ahead 49-37 and the lead reached 60-45 with 10 minutes left before UCF began chipping away.
"She's an outstanding player and we had a lot of respect for her coming in," Williams said of Mayberry. "We tried to make it tough on her, but she played great tonight and got her teammates involved."
Tulsa became the lowest seed to win the C-USA tournament, with the previous low being a No. 5 seed twice (UCF in 2009 and TCU in 2003).
Ashley Clark had 14 points, including four free throws in the final 28 seconds to preserve the lead for Tulsa. Loren McDaniel had 14 points and six rebounds and Kelsee Grovey had 12 points, including a drive that gave TU a 70-59 lead with 3:20 left.
Tulsa shot 48.3 percent for the game while limiting UCF to 38.5 percent shooting.