A remarkable run for eighth-seeded Central Florida came up short when the Knights were held scoreless over the final two minutes in a 75-66 loss to Tulsa in the championship game of the Conference USA tournament on Saturday.
Central Florida entered the tournament with an unremarkable 13-16 record but behind the play of guards Gevenia Carter and Briahanna Jackson nearly came away with the school's fifth NCAA tournament berth.
Jackson, who led the team with 22 points, scored on a jumper with 2:02 left to pull the Knights (16-17) within 70-66 of Tulsa, which was writing its own Cinderella story as the tournament's sixth seed. Tulsa (17-16) survived and advanced by making 5 of 8 free throws in the final 28 seconds.
Taleya Mayberry had 25 points, eight rebounds and four steals to lead the Golden Hurricane.
"She's an outstanding player and we had a lot of respect for her coming in," Central Florida coach Joi Williams said of Mayberry. "We tried to make it tough on her, but she played great tonight and got her teammates involved."
The Knights trailed by 11 with 3:20 remaining before scoring seven straight on a three-point play by Sara Djassi, a steal and layup by Jackson and a jumper by Carter. But that was the final basket they would make.
"We got good looks, we just didn't convert and we had a couple of turnovers late," Williams said. "And we didn't get stops when we needed to.
"Both teams were playing their fourth game in four days. Both teams were running on adrenaline. Just like Taleya didn't want her career to end, our seniors were playing as hard as they could to keep our season alive."
The Hurricane earned their second berth in the NCAA tournament (the other came in 2006) and 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.
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.
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 and Loren McDaniel added 14 points each for Tulsa.
Jackson had 16 points and Erika Jones had 14 points and 10 rebounds for Central Florida.
Tulsa shot 48.3 percent for the game while limiting UCF to 38.5 percent shooting.