Louisville Defeats Oklahoma, 61-59

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009

ST. LOUIS, April 5 -- The players on the Louisville women's basketball team constantly felt slighted as they made their way to St. Louis and their first appearance in the national semifinals. They weren't happy about being seeded third in the South Region, or that they had to face LSU on its home court in the second round, or that they weren't prominently featured in the Final Four commercials on ESPN.

But the Cardinals pushed through that, developing a swagger and a toughness that helped them weather a terrible start to their semifinal against Oklahoma on Sunday night. Louisville, which went scoreless for nearly the first six minutes of the game, outlasted the Sooners, 61-59, at the Scottrade Center.

"Nobody expected us to be here right now," said Louisville senior Angel McCoughtry, who scored 14 of her 18 points in the second half. "It shows a lot of heart to come back and play against this Oklahoma team."

Louisville (34-4) will meet Connecticut, which defeated Stanford in the second semifinal, in the championship game on Tuesday night. The Cardinals' last loss came against the undefeated Huskies, 75-36, in the Big East tournament final.

Louisville had no one who could physically match up with Oklahoma's broad-shouldered, 6-foot-4 Courtney Paris -- its best option, 6-4 Chauntise Wright (McNamara), sat out the entire season because of a knee injury -- but it made the four-time all-American work hard every time she got the ball. Paris finished with 16 points and 16 rebounds; her twin sister Ashley had 14 points.

"We did a great job of playing in front of [Courtney Paris], and we had help coming from the back side," said Louisville Coach Jeff Walz, who was an assistant with Maryland when it won the 2006 NCAA title. "That's all we did all night. We talked about it; we worked on it for four days."

But all that preparation nearly came unraveled in a disastrous opening seven minutes of the game. The Cardinals missed their first 13 shots from the field -- their jumpers rolled off the rim, and they flat-out missed a handful of layups -- and didn't score their first points until senior Candyce Bingham (14 points) made two free throws with 14 minutes 13 seconds left before halftime. After Oklahoma freshman Whitney Hand sank her second three-pointer of the game, the Sooners led 16-2.

"I think that just shows us we're not aliens," McCoughtry said of her team's early offensive struggles. "We're human. I'm so glad to know we're human. They played great defense, and we had those jitters we had to relax and get out of."

But Louisville slowly worked its way back -- sophomore guard Deseree' Byrd finally converted its first field goal with 12:35 to go in the half -- and trailed 34-22 at halftime. The Cardinals were still in the game, despite shooting only 22.2 percent and having McCoughtry miss all seven shots she attempted from the field.

Walz, famously blunt, told McCoughtry during the break that that was the worst half he had seen her play, and that she was "an embarrassment."

The Cardinals used a 15-1 run over the first five minutes of the second half to take their first lead of the game. McCoughtry, who could be the top overall pick in the WNBA draft later this week, was the catalyst; she finally got a shot to fall, draining a short jumper, and then stole a pass and converted a layup. After she scored off another drive, Louisville led 37-35 with 15:02 to play.

But Louisville was never able to pull away. Freshman Becky Burke played tough defense on Hand, holding her to just two points in the second half, and also made two three-pointers in the final five minutes to give the Cardinals an edge. Each time, the Sooners (32-5) came back.

A layup by Courtney Paris brought Oklahoma to 60-59 with 8.2 seconds remaining, and after Bingham made 1 of 2 free throws with 7.6 seconds on the clock, the Sooners grabbed a loose ball, and pushed it ahead to Nyeshia Stevenson, who was wide open on the left side. Her three-pointer at the buzzer hit the rim and touched off a delirious celebration by the Cardinals.

"I wouldn't think of us as Cinderella," McCoughtry said. "We're just as good as any of those teams."

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