NEW ORLEANS — When Tulane topped off its 2010 Conference USA regular-season women’s basketball championship by winning the league tournament and advancing to the NCAA tournament, then-freshman guard Olivia Grayson figured this was the way it would be for the rest of her college career.
But three regular-season fails and two losses in the tournament final later, the realization has hit the now-Green Wave senior that this is it.
Grayson’s final chance to return to the NCAAs begins Thursday when third-seeded Tulane meets Wednesday’s Tulsa-Rice winner in the quarterfinals of the C-USA Tournament at the Tulsa Convention Center.
“I don’t want to say there’s a lot of pressure to make it,” said Grayson, who was a second-team All-Conference selection this year after being a first-teamer as a junior. “But it’s always in the back of your mind.
“I feel like I’ve got a different kind of focus for this tournament.”
Tulane (22-7, 11-5) is coming off a disappointing 71-52 loss at Texas-El Paso that cost the Wave a share of the league title with SMU.
It meant little in the seedings — No. 3 instead of No. 2, which went to probable semifinal foe East Carolina. And with a No. 84 RPI, there’s no chance of an NCAA berth for Tulane without winning the tournament.
SMU (No. 55 RPI) is in the same boat.
Still, for the team picked to win the championship, it was a major disappointment, especially considering that the Wave led 31-27 at halftime. But UTEP went on a 23-2 run to start the second half and won handily.
“Their crowd got into and we got down on ourselves,” Grayson said. “I know we were looking forward to celebrating in the locker room, but instead we had to sleep on it that night and then through that long flight home.
“It was a major kick in the butt for us. But maybe being disappointed like that is the best motivation.”
Tulane coach Lisa Stockton agreed.
“Winning the conference championship was a goal we’d had all season, and then we wound up not getting it,” Stockton said. “That’s got to hurt your pride.
“But it doesn’t change the fact that we’ve got to play three good games in three days to win the tournament. And I believe we’ve got the kind of team built to do that.”
That’s because the Wave is probably the deepest team in the league. Ten players average double-digit minutes, topped by Grayson’s 29.0. Sophomore guard Whitney Bibbins, a former University High standout, is the leading scorer at a modest 12.4 point-per-game.
Bibbins has missed the past three games with an undisclosed health issue, but Stockton said Bibbins has had full practices since Sunday and will be good to go for the tournament.
“The key to our success has been contributions from a lot of players, not just one or two,” Stockton said. “If somebody’s not having a good night, then we’ve got somebody else that can go in.
“I like our chance in the tournament because of that.”
Indeed, the first game Bibbins missed was at SMU on Feb. 28.
Sophomore guard Danielle Blagg, who like Grayson is a second-team All-Conference pick, had 16 points that night to lead the Wave to a 73-68 victory.
“It may come down to us and SMU, and we know we’re capable of beating them because we have,” Grayson said. “But then they’ve beaten us, too.
“Your character comes out in close games, and we’ve won more of them this year than we’ve lost.”
If Tulane does not win the tournament, the Wave is likely bound for the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
But Grayson, who has seen her team settle for that after championship game losses to Central Florida and Texas-El Paso the past two seasons, said that’s not much of a consolation prize — especially for a senior.
“We’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunities we’ve had the last three years,” she said. “But when you’re a senior, all of sudden, you realize that this is your last one.
“Going to the NCAA tournament when I was a freshman (a first-round loss to Georgia) was a great experience.
“I’d just like one more crack at it.”