NEW ORLEANS -- A blown layup at the end of regulation gave Central Florida the second chance it needed to pull off an unlikely run to the NCAA tournament.
Southern Mississippi guard Candace Rucker missed a potential winning putback that she immediately seemed to regret, then Emma Cannon and Chelsie Wiley helped UCF surge ahead in overtime in a 65-54 victory in the Conference USA tournament championship game Sunday.
Cannon scored 16 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, and Wiley scored 18 points for the fifth-seeded Knights (17-16), a team of sophomores and freshmen who won only two of their first 13 games, but rebounded to win their league's automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
"We never gave up and stayed confident. We trusted in our coaching staff and ended up No. 1" in the league, Cannon said, reflecting on her team's 15-5 performance the past 20 games. "We just said we'd go all out and do whatever it took."
Wiley hit four 3s during regulation and a crushing pull-up jumper for a 59-53 lead with just over a minute to go in overtime, and the Knights celebrated by piling on one another at halfcourt after the final buzzer sounded.
"I told them we went into overtime for a reason. Everything happens for a reason," UCF coach Joi Williams recalled. "Everything that happened to us this year helped to prepare us for this moment."
Amber Eugene had 14 points for third-seeded Southern Miss (20-12), which led only once briefly in the second half. Pauline Love had 13 points and 12 rebounds for USM, while Stephanie Helgeson scored 12 points, all after halftime.
Amber Kirkpatrick's jump shot gave UCF the lead to open the extra period, then Cannon added the a pair of free throws to make it 56-52. Helgeson hit a free throw that got USM as close as 56-53, then Cannon added another free throw as the Knights began to pull away.
It wasn't just Rucker's missed layup that cost Southern Miss -- the team also missed 12 of 25 free throws.
"Down the stretch when it counts, the misses are going to add up," Love said. "But, like coach said, it doesn't come down to just that. ... Our offensive flow was horrible today."
UCF outshot Southern Miss 42.6 percent (23-of-54) to 32.8 percent (20-of-61) and the Knights outrebounded USM 43-37, earning their third NCAA bid and first since 1999.
In the process, Cannon wound up setting a new Conference USA tournament record with 58 rebounds during UCF's four victories. Sandora Irvin of TCU set the previous mark of 47 rebounds in 2003.
"We believed that rebounding wins championships," Williams said. "Emma all season long was relentless on the boards."
UCF began the game with an 8-0 run, highlighted by Wiley's two 3-pointers, and led until Helgeson scored back-to-back baskets inside, the second tying the game at 36 with 12:32 left in the second half.
Love's layup, set up by Rucker's steal and bounce-pass on a fast break, gave USM its only lead at 40-38. Wiley responded with a 3 from the left corner, and there were six ties after that, the last coming when Ruckers' free throws evened the score at 52 with 1:28 to go.
Neither team scored again before the second half ended, but USM missed a golden opportunity to win the game after getting a turnover on UCF's inbound pass inside the last half-minute. Love's shot during the final seconds missed, but the rebound bounced to Rucker, who was all alone underneath. Her layup attempt as the buzzer sounded bounced out, and she fell to her knees, pulling her jersey over her face while teammates sought to console her.
Any hope that she'd redeem herself in overtime vanished when she was called for a charge on a drive to the hoop, fouling out with 2:07 to go and USM trailing 57-53.
"Our effort was very good. We just didn't play with the poise that we needed," USM coach Joye Lee-McNelis said.
Rucker had led USM to victory with 15 points against Marshall in the semifinals just a day earlier, but finished with eight points on 2-of-12 shooting from the field against UCF.