- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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HARTFORD, Conn. -- The XL Center sits adjacent to Hartford Stage, one of the area's bigger drama outlets, in the capital city's dreary downtown. But the running engagement booked each March for the sports arena is quickly becoming the best show in town.
Two years ago, an injury-depleted West Virginia team entered the Big East tournament with more losses than wins and rode a wave of emotion to the championship game. One year ago, just a week after losing by 26 points at home against Connecticut, Rutgers beat the host in its second home and launched a run to the Final Four in Cleveland.
Now, Louisville finds itself in the spotlight precisely because the Cardinals are no longer Angel McCoughtry's one-woman show.
By virtue of its 57-56 win over No. 4 Rutgers on Sunday, Louisville put an emphatic exclamation point on a second-half surge that has carried it to the semifinals of the conference tournament. With McCoughtry, a Kodak All-American a year ago, leading an increasingly diverse offense and an aggressive defense under first-year coach Jeff Walz, the Cardinals suddenly look like a team few are going to want to see in their bracket on Monday, March 17.
"I'm not sure where to start," Walz chuckled when asked to make an opening statement in the postgame news conference after Sunday's victory. "I've got a group of kids here that have bought into what we tried to bring to this program when we were hired. We're learning to get a little bit tougher; we're learning to fight through some adversity; and I couldn't be prouder of what they've done."
That wasn't necessarily the case last season, when Louisville -- before Walz's arrival -- exited the conference tournament after a 26-point loss to Connecticut in the semifinals. Voted the Big East player of the year in 2006-07 after averaging 21.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.2 steals per game, McCoughtry played well in the first two rounds but battled foul trouble and Connecticut's defense en route to just nine points in the semifinal loss. More memorably, she spent long stretches of each game looking alternately disgusted with the officials, herself and, worst of all, her teammates.
Walz knew McCoughtry from his days as an assistant at Maryland. The Terrapins had hoped to bring her to College Park, and Walz felt comfortable he was taking on a competitor with some wires crossed rather than a proverbial coach-killer.
"We took about 12 minutes of game tape from last year and broke it down," Walz said. "The way she reacted when officials made calls, the way she reacted when she missed shots, the way she reacted when her teammates missed a shot -- just so she could see it -- because a lot of players don't even realize the frustration that they show.
"And you know, after showing 12 minutes of that, she was like, 'Coach, nobody has ever shown me this; I never realized that I did that.' And the great thing about it is she's extremely coachable; she wants to learn. If you ever have a chance to go back and watch a game or two of last year and watch her now -- of course, she gets frustrated; the kid is an All-American and she wants to win, and so emotion is part of the game. But she's done a tremendous job of relaxing and trying to let the game come to her."
More than just in words, McCoughtry's maturation showed up on the stat sheet as Louisville overcame a 2-5 start in the Big East to finish the regular season 10-6 in conference play. In 13 nonconference games, McCoughtry attempted nearly twice as many field goals -- 10 more shots per game -- as junior Candyce Bingham, the team's second-leading scorer, and averaged 23.7 points. In conference play, she took just six more shots per game than Bingham -- and still averaged 23.3 points per game.
So when Louisville trailed by a point in the closing minute Sunday and needed a basket, McCoughtry passed up a forced shot and found an open Bingham for a layup and the win.
"Throughout the game, I was just telling Angel to play her game," Bingham said "And Angel is learning now that she can trust us -- trust her teammates -- a lot more this year. That last play, she had three people at her and she just saw me under the basket and put it in."
What was most impressive about Louisville's win was that Walz's team did not play a perfect game. McCoughtry hit just 8 of 25 shots and Louisville scored only 15 points off turnovers. But matched up against Rutgers' relentless on-ball pressure -- and even if the Scarlet Knights no longer have the depth to press the length of the court for long stretches, they still remove all traces of personal space in half-court situations -- Louisville got just enough out of the half-court sets Walz barked out each time down the court. The Cardinals looked a little like Walz's old charges at Maryland in their black and red uniforms, and created some of the same havoc on defense. But their offense was positively Princeton-like in comparison to the free-wheeling Terrapins'.
"I was out of them," Walz admitted of his play calling. "I had no more sets to call at halftime. We had run every single play we have, but we did a very good job of executing. And I thought tonight we got a couple of good sets early where our post players scored and we got some good shots from our guards. And even though Angel was struggling, everyone else was involved. We're hopefully going to be able eventually to open things up a little bit more and [let] our point guard have more control and more say in what's going on, but right now, Patrika Barlow is doing a great job of running exactly what we want her to run as a staff."
Rutgers had a long bus ride back to New Jersey to mull over its mistakes, but at least C. Vivian Stringer's team still has next week to look forward to. The Scarlet Knights lost any chance of a No. 1 seed along with the game against Louisville, but unlike with Quinnipiac, American, Gonzaga and others, a season's worth of success wasn't undone in a game.
As in the theater, there is little real damage done at the Big East tournament. Those larger-than-life characters killed off during the four-day run are back on stage when the curtain rises on the NCAA Tournament. But also like a good play, it can offer powerful stories of redemption and resolution. And it can make players and teams stars.
"This is probably going to be a memory for the rest of my life," McCoughtry said. "But yet again, we've got to stay focused for the next one."
The talented director didn't have to cue her for that line. The switch from "me" to "we" flowed naturally for a player and a team ready for a curtain call on Selection Monday.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.