When Tulsa was losing games early in the season, people were wondering what was going on.
Truth is, it was getting better in losing to strong opponents like Wichita State, Creighton, Oklahoma and Maryland. When conference play rolled around, the Golden Hurricane rocked their way to a share of first place in the league and roll through the Conference USA Tournament, ultimately wining the championship game with a 69-60 decision against Louisiana Tech Saturday in El Paso, Texas.
“We got off to a really shaky start, to be honest with you,“ Tulsa coach Danny Manning said. “We were 0-4 and 1-6. We were getting better but we were playing some really good teams. They stretched us out and took advantage of our mistakes. Each game we played we learned a little bit and grew a little bit and we became a little bit better. The last 11 games, we have been playing at a pretty good clip defensively. We hang our hat on the defensive side of the ball. We try to make teams uncomfortable running their offense and be very disruptive. That’s the key to our success. We make multiple efforts on the defensive end and we just try to grind the whole game.”
With Saturday’s win in the C-USA Championship game, Tulsa is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.
Tournament MVP led the Golden Hurricane with 27 points. Rashad Ray scored 15 points and Shaquille Harrison netted 10.
TU shot 43 percent (23-of-53) from the floor, 56 percent (5-of-9) from 3-point range and 72 percent (18-of-25) from the free throw line.
The Golden Hurricane, whom trailed 35-34 at halftime, took the lead for good at 52-51 after a layup from Smith. TU (21-12) would never trail again as it outscored the Bulldogs (27-7) 17-9 the rest of the game.
Kenneth Smith led Louisiana Tech with 16 points.
“This was a lot of fun,” Manning said. “I know it’s easy for us to say now because we are on the winning end of it. It was a hard fought game and Louisiana Tech is a talented team. Coach White does a great job with those guys. We’ve got three other teams in our league that are very deserving of a bid. There’s a lot of parity in our league and the teams play hard. I’m very happy and proud of the young men on our team for having a lot of perseverance and fighting through a rough non-conference schedule and maintain a positive and great spirit about themselves and want to get better. I’m very happy for all of these guys and I’m looking forward to our season continuing.”
TU, a 13th seed in the tournament, will play UCLA, a fourth-seed, in the first round of the NCAA tournament in San Diego on Thursday. Ironically, the two teams were also matched up against each other 20 years ago in Oklahoma City, when the Golden Hurricane upset the Bruins.