Texas-El Paso came into Fogelman Arena on Friday with a bigger, more rugged defensive team, a program that competed well against Tulane when the two were members of Conference USA.
However, it was Tulane which had the defensive riddle that was difficult to solve, paving the way for a 67-56 victory, as the Green Wave won its tournament for the 10th consecutive year.
“It's great to have an opportunity to win this tournament again,” coach Lisa Stockton said. “I feel like in our last three games we've really come a long way. Different players have stepped up.”
Leading scorer Kolby Morgan certainly was one. She scored 22 points, giving her 54 for the two-game tournament. Power forward Meredith Schulte had 12 and was part of Tulane's defense against Miners 6-foot-4 center Tamara Seda that was a big factor. Freshman small forward Sierra Cheatham scored 11 off the bench, including three 3-pointers.
“It feels great to be MVP,” Morgan said. “We were pushing the ball and getting fast-break points, the easiest points, and my confidence level was really high.”
Seda, who averages 14.7 points and 10.6 rebounds, was held to six points on 1 of 5 shooting and eight rebounds as Tulane constantly changed strategies against her. Trying to pass out of double teams, she had seven turnovers.
“We knew she was a really good player, and they would try to get the ball in to her a lot,” Schulte said. “(Center) Harlyn (Wyatt) did a great job just battling her, and we were getting a lot of help from (backup center) Ksenjia Madzarevic.”
Heading into its New Year's Eve American Athletic Conference opener against South Florida, Tulane (8-5) won its third consecutive game.
Morgan became just the third Tulane player to be selected the Classic MVP. She was joined on the all-tournament team by Schulte and Wave point guard Kayla Manuirirangi. Others selected were Troy forward Amber Rivers, Samford guard Kayla Nichols and Seda.
Once again, the Wave took control early. Tulane held UTEP to 1 of 11 shooting in outscoring the Miners 18-5 in the second quarter on their way to a commanding 39-23 halftime lead. The quarter ended with a 3-pointer at the buzzer by Cheatham.
Texas-El Paso trailed 50-38 at the end of the third and came to 50-41 at 9:43 of the third. However, after Schulte drew the fourth foul on Seda at the 9:03 mark, Morgan made a three-point play off an out of bounds play for a 55-43 lead. Tulane expanded the lead to 65-47 at 3:18 on back-to-back 3s by Cheatham and Morgan.
The Wave built on a 21-18 first-quarter lead with an 11-0 run to start the second, taking a 32-18 lead at the 5:19 mark. UTEP sank two free throws with 3:13 left in the half. Its only other points — and only basket in the quarter — came on a 3-pointer from the right corner by point guard Faith Cook with 1:26 left.
Morgan led the way with 14 points in the half, with 10 coming in the first quarter. The score was tied 13-13 at 3:21 of the first quarter when Morgan scored eight consecutive points on a 16-foot jumper, a 3-pointer on the break and another 3-pointer in the set offense for a 21-13 lead. Tulane stayed in command after that.