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Fortuitous Tulsa primed for championship game

Stars were in alignment for Golden Hurricane in season's final weeks

AP Sports Writer

TULSA, OK — Tulsa tight end Garrett Mills was understandably frustrated.

The Golden Hurricane could clinch a berth in the Conference USA title game with a win by Southern Methodist against Texas-El Paso.

So, when a second SMU drive stalled inside the UTEP 5 on Saturday, Mills was about ready to throw his laptop out his apartment window.

With the game not on television, Mills was keeping up with it on the Internet. Other Tulsa players watched for the score on television tickers, and some even made the Thanksgiving weekend trip to Dallas for the game.

When it finally ended — with SMU claiming a 40-27 victory — Tulsa won Conference USA's West Division.

"I think I did a little Riverdance, jumped around a little bit," Mills said Monday.

Tulsa (7-4, 6-2) had been all but eliminated from the title race when Reagan Schneider hit a 23-yard field goal to give UTEP a 41-38 win against the Golden Hurricane on Nov. 5. That left Tulsa needing to win its final two games and still depending upon the Miners to lose back to back against UAB and SMU.

"We thought it would come down to the last straw. I felt there was no question we would have a chance to be in the championship game if we won our last two," Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe said. "That was the key coming out of the UTEP game. ... We took care of our business, and (UTEP's) opponents took care of the other half."

The Golden Hurricane beat East Carolina and Tulane to finish the season, then rested over Thanksgiving break. Coaches spent time preparing for a potential meeting with East champion Central Florida, just in case UTEP faltered.

"We planned on that happening, in terms of the way we prepared, the way we were approaching our Thanksgiving break as coaches," Kragthorpe said.

UCF coach George O'Leary said last week the Golden Knights would spend half their time looking at UTEP and the other half on Tulsa, so Kragthorpe doesn't expect to have any advantage in preparation.

"I think the biggest thing is just the opportunity to freshen up a little bit and get away a little bit, take a fresh perspective on what we've been doing so we can continue to do that well and maybe make some adjustments in some areas where we want to improve down the stretch," Kragthorpe said."

Playing in the Conference USA title game gives the Golden Hurricane a shot at their first league championship since 1985, when they won the Missouri Valley Conference for the sixth straight season.

It's also another chance for broad exposure for Kragthorpe's program. Tulsa played its season opener against Minnesota in front of a national television audience on ESPN, and it will have another chance Saturday.

02/23/07 10:43 AM

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