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Jelisa Caldwell leads Central Florida to NCAA tourney

EL PASO, Texas -- Jelisa Caldwell scored 27 points and Central Florida beat Tulane 85-73 on Saturday to win the Conference USA championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The game went back and forth with 14 lead changes before UCF (22-10) took the lead for good with 11:28 left. The Knights, who have won 11 in a row, took the lead off a 3-pointer by Chelsie Wiley. Tulane (22-10) narrowed the gap to two points with 5:13 left, but UCF went on a 9-0 run over the next 4 minutes to put the game out of reach.

"It was defense," Knights coach Joi Williams said. "We went into a 2-3 zone at the end and I think Tulane got a little quick with their shots and we were able to contest and get rebounds."

Williams said her main concern was preventing Tulane from getting second-chance shots.

"They are so good at getting second shots and our focus was to give them one contested shot and to get the rebound," Williams said. "We wanted to make them shoot outside the paint because we were not doing a good job at containing penetration. Our guys really adjusted well because we were changing our defense on the fly."

The Knights scored 30 points off 21 Tulane turnovers and outrebounded the Green Wave 45-32.

"Our turnovers and rebounding numbers were the one's that cost us," Tulane coach Lisa Stockton said. "We cut it, made turnovers, made a couple shots and it was a momentum shift. I give them a lot of credit and they were able to capitalize on our mistakes."

Caldwell had four points during the 9-0 run, a welcome departure from her mid-game drought. She opened the game shooting 4 of 5 from the field and then went cold until making a pair of free throws 5 minutes into the second half.

"Main thing I tried to focus on was rebounding," Caldwell said. "I just got back, settled down and took a deep breath and got back to rebounding. That led to the rim being bigger for me so I just tried to take my time."

The Knights had four other players in double figures. Wiley scored 13 points, D'Nay Daniels had 12, Ashia Patrick 11, and Ashia Kelly and Gevenia Carter each chipped in 10.

UCF's offensive outburst was a far cry from Thursday's semifinal win over Alabama-Birmingham, which held the Knights to 12 points in the first half.

"Today was a new day and we just let that go," Caldwell said. "We trusted in each other and believed in each other as sisters and we had each other's backs and that's what propelled us to a second championship."

Roshaunda Barnes scored 25 points for the Green Wave, Olivia Grayson added 12, and Whitney Bibbins and Daniell Nunn each had 10.

UCF will return home and await its seeding in the NCAA tournament, but in the meantime, they plan to enjoy their crown.

"There are not a lot of people outside of our locker room that thought we would be in this situation, sitting here," Williams said. "I'm just so happy to be able to be a part of their lives for the last four years and I know they are going to continue to do great things."