Commentary

Defense leads Louisville into Elite Eight

McCoughtry, Bingham notch double-doubles, Cardinals hold Lady Bears to season low

Originally Published: March 28, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Sometimes teams seem bugged enough by defense that they shoot about as well as they might have if blindfolded. Even so, the coach usually insists, "We had looks, we just didn't make them."

So said Baylor's Kim Mulkey after No. 3 seed Louisville helped put her second-seeded Lady Bears' offense in a trash compactor, especially for the last eight minutes of both halves Saturday. Louisville clinched its first Elite Eight appearance with a 56-39 victory, and we were left with that age-old question …

How much was good defense, how much was bad shooting and how can you be totally sure?

You can't, exactly, and it doesn't matter anyway. Let's just say Louisville's defense was more than good enough.

"I think we wore them out," Cardinals coach Jeff Walz said. And Mulkey agreed, "We wore out."

[+] EnlargeCandyce Bingham
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonCandyce Bingham and Louisville tied up Baylor's offense, holding the Lady Bears to 25 percent shooting and a season-low 39 points.

One thing neither team wore out was the scoreboard; Baylor had its lowest point total of the season. There were misses aplenty in this game from both sides. The teams were a combined 6-of-40 from behind the arc, almost prompting an emergency meeting by the NCAA to remove the 3-point stripe during the game … and please make them stop shooting from there!

"I think it's one of our best, without a doubt, all season," Walz said of the Cardinals' defensive effort. "I thought we did a really good job in the first half of contesting all of their 3-point shots and never letting anyone get into a rhythm. After that happens, you start to press when you're shooting a 3."

Baylor came into this game with Danielle Wilson out, as she has been since late February. Rachel Allison, who had a sprained knee and was wrapped up in black tights and a knee brace, was nowhere near her usual self. Mulkey said she really didn't even want to play Allison, but the senior convinced her to give her this game, in case it was her last.

It turned out it was, and Allison finished with two points and five rebounds in 16 minutes. Fellow seniors Jhasmin Player and Jessica Morrow combined for 13 points and seven rebounds, not nearly enough for Baylor, which finished the season 29-6.

"I said this to them in the locker room," Mulkey said of her seniors, "'I hope those tears that you're shedding are because you're going to miss college athletics. Cause they certainly aren't going to be for being disappointed in your four-year career at Baylor.' Those kids have left their mark."

And with the top-ranked recruiting class -- which includes Brittney Griner -- coming in next season, Mulkey has nothing but optimism looking ahead.

"We did have a good recruiting class, do have returning players with experience and the future looks good," Mulkey said.

Two of those returning players are Melissa Jones, Baylor's leading scorer Saturday (13 points), and Kelli Griffin, who led the team in its second-round victory over South Dakota State.

[+] EnlargeMelissa Jones
AP Photo/Sara D. DavisBaylor finished the year 29-6, but returns plenty of talent, including Melissa Jones, and the nation's top recruiting class, led by Brittney Griner.

Jones was the only player who posed much of a "threat" to Louisville, which sounds strange to say about someone who made just 4 of 11 shots. But she scored 11 of her 13 points in the first half, prompting Walz to tell his team at the break that was unacceptable. She had to be stopped.

In the second half, she was -- along with everyone else for Baylor.

Meanwhile, it wasn't the sharpest game of the season for Louisville stars Angel McCoughtry and Candyce Bingham, but it was one of their grittiest. A year ago, they led the program to its first Sweet 16 and thought they played well against North Carolina in the regional semis. Not well enough, though, as the Tar Heels won 78-74.

The Cardinals had been up by nine points at halftime in that game, but let it get away in the second half. At the break on Saturday, up 28-19 over Baylor, McCoughtry reminded herself not to let the same thing happen again.

"When I was sitting at halftime, I was thinking back to how we felt last year," McCoughtry said. "I thought, 'You know what? We're not going to go back into the locker room and have that same feeling again.' Me and Candyce put the team on our backs."

McCoughtry found Bingham on the baseline for a 3-pointer that pushed Louisville's lead to 41-37 with 6 minutes, 56 seconds left. Walz immediately called timeout and had a smile on his face … but still had some harsh words. He wanted his team to relax and enjoy the moment, but also get stops.

The Cardinals got a bunch of them. Baylor scored only one more basket the rest of the game.

McCoughtry tied her season high in field goal attempts (28), making 10 of them on the way to 22 points. She also had 12 rebounds and five assists. Bingham had 15 points and 15 rebounds.

The Cardinals were a little grouchy about their No. 3 seed -- thinking they had earned a 2 -- but Saturday they showed that didn't make any difference. They're 32-4 and in unchartered -- but not unanticipated -- territory.

Walz will go against Maryland, the team he helped coach to a national championship in 2006 as an assistant to Brenda Frese, in the regional final Monday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). The Final Four has been this Louisville team's goal, but considering the program reached the Elite Eight for the first time, there was reason to give that accomplishment serious recognition, too.

"It's hard to put things into words right now," Walz said. "I told them from day one, I'm not the easiest to play for, because I demand a lot from them -- on the floor and off the floor. We're not just going to be great basketball players, we're going to be great people, great students.

"To see what they did today, the way they've played this entire season, I couldn't be prouder of a group of kids."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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