TULSA, Okla. -- Tulane coach Lisa Stockton didn't have much to sell when she went to recruit Chassity Brown.
The Green Wave weren't even able to attend classes or play games on their home campus in New Orleans, with the city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
All she had was hope.
"We just believed we could rise up again," Stockton said.
Now, Tulane has something it can believe in. Brown scored 11 points as the top-seeded Green Wave built a big lead early and beat UAB 62-54 Friday in the Conference USA championship game, earning their 10th trip to the NCAA tournament.
"This is very personal to me because of the things that have happened to our program, with Katrina and coming back and trying to rebuild this program," said Stockton, who took Tulane to the NCAAs in her first nine seasons at the school before a seven-year drought.
"They trusted us that we could be back," she added, "so that probably makes this even more special for that reason."
After Katrina struck in August 2005, the Tulane women's team was sent to Lubbock, Texas, for school and practice and didn't return to play games back home until December. Yet Stockton still had to build for the future.
"When you look at what happened to our city, what happened to our campus, our athletic programs being split up with five different schools," she said. "Our president and athletic director did a tremendous job of holding things together but it's not the easiest sell in recruiting when you've gone through a natural disaster like that."
Brown, a Shreveport native, was willing to give the Green Wave a chance.
"I don't know what I saw but I prayed about it and I asked God to direct me in the right way where he wanted me to be," Brown said. "Obviously, it was here at Tulane for my senior year, to go out with a bang like this."
The Green Wave (26-6) charged out of the gates to build an early 20-point lead and then fended off a comeback bid by sixth-seeded UAB in the second half. Tulane is headed back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002, when the school's run of nine straight appearances on the bracket ended.
Brett Benzio had 11 points and 17 rebounds, and Olivia Grayson also scored 11 for the Green Wave, who have won 10 of their last 11 games. Only four top-seeded teams have won the Conference USA tournament title in its 15 years of existence.
"I just think we're all excited about the opportunity to do something that hasn't really been done that much in Conference USA, to win the regular season and the tournament," Brown said.
Tamika Dukes scored 16 points to lead UAB (17-15), which got as close as seven in the closing minutes. Freshmen Jala Harris and Amber Jones added 14 points apiece.
UAB fought its way back from 20 points down to get within 57-50 after Jones' three-point play with 2:43 remaining. Jones then answered Brown's pull-up jumper with a layup, but the Blazers came up empty on their next three possessions and the comeback fizzled.
"I'm extremely proud of my team for not giving up," coach Audra Smith said. "They could have folded and just said, 'Hey, this thing is over and we're just going to let the time run out and get on out of here.' But they did not do that. They kept the fight."
The Blazers had won six straight games since losing 64-56 at Tulane, when they fell behind by 22 in the first half before getting back within striking distance late. They missed 11 of their first 12 shots and committed eight turnovers as Tulane used the league's best defense to race out to a 22-2 lead in the opening 10 minutes.
"When we played at Fogelman (Arena) earlier this year, that was successful for us, so we went back to it," Stockton said. "It just doesn't always work twice, so I'm glad it did."
The Green Wave moved within one victory of the school record for wins in a season, set in the 1996-97 and 1999-00 seasons.
"There is no feeling like going to the NCAA tournament," said tournament MVP Danielle Nunn, who played in the NCAAs with TCU before transferring to Tulane. "There's only 64 teams that are chosen and to be one of those 64 is really like a dream come true."