Ticket Punched: Tulsa earns first NCAA bid since 2003 by defeating Louisiana Tech

Tulsa players celebrate their 69-60 win over Louisiana Tech an NCAA college basketball game in the championship of the Conference USA tournament Saturday, March 15, 2014 in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/Victor Calzada)

At the height of Tulsa's success in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Golden Hurricane were a mid-major to be feared.

They made the NCAA tournament eight times in 10 years, won at least one tournament game all but one of those seasons and reached the Elite Eight under Bill Self in 2000.

It may be a little while before Tulsa inspires the fear and respect from opponents that it did back then, but Danny Manning has the Golden Hurricane back on the upswing again. They culminated a breakthrough season Saturday afternoon by outlasting Louisiana Tech 69-60 in the Conference USA title game to earn their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2003.

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Tulsa's win caps a late-season surge that elevated the Golden Hurricane from a mid-tier Conference USA team to the top of the league. They won nine straight to secure a share of the league title before dispatching of Tulane, Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech to secure the automatic bid.

The key to Tulsa's success has been an ability to get to the foul line on offense and to disrupt opposing offenses with a smothering defense. The Golden Hurricane forced 15.1 turnovers per game in league play and allowed opponents to shoot only 38.4 percent, a formula that served them well in the league tournament when none of their three opponents shot higher than 40.4 percent. 

Louisiana Tech in particular struggled, hitting only 32.4 of its looks from the field. That wasn't nearly enough to overcome 27 points from Tulsa guard James Woodard, who helped key a 13-3 spurt in the final seven minutes to put the Golden Hurricane in control.

When the final buzzer sounded, Tulsa players spilled onto the floor in celebration of their NCAA bid.

With Woodard and Rashad Smith only sophomores and Conference USA lacking a dominant program, that once-common scene at Tulsa may soon be an annual rite of March again.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!