ST. LOUIS -- Louisville defeated Oklahoma 61-59 in Sunday night's first semifinal at the 2009 Final Four at Scottrade Center. The Cardinals will appear in their first national championship game Tuesday versus the winner of Stanford-UConn.
HOW THE GAME WAS WON: Trailing by 12 points at halftime, Louisville quickened the game's pace to start the second half. The increased intensity seemed to throw off Oklahoma's rhythm and the Cardinals got back in the game with a 17-2 run. Then Louisville coach Jeff Walz slowed things down as the Cardinals went to more of a half-court offense. The teams traded leads several times, but Louisville hung on when, after Candyce Bingham made 1-of-2 at the foul line with eight seconds left, a pull-up 3-pointer from Oklahoma's Nyeshia Stevenson rattled around the rim and out as the horn sounded.
TURNING POINT: Louisville was already in the midst of a big run to start the second half, but when Angel McCoughtry hit a baseline jumper (her first field goal of the game) at the 16:23 mark, the Cardinals fans erupted. The All-American followed it up with a steal and a layup, bringing Louisville within two after a 12-point halftime deficit. Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale elected to wait for the media timeout, but after an Ashley Paris miss, Louisville's Keshia Hines scored her second putback of the half to cap a 13-1 run and tie the score at 35.
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Louisville's McCoughtry. After the most disastrous half of her senior season -- she went 0-for-7 and failed to score in the first half -- McCoughtry responded after halftime. She scored 18 points, including a pivotal six in the Cardinals' 17-2 run that began the half to get them back into the game. The senior seemed to slow down just a bit and took advantage of the height difference between her and Oklahoma's Whitney Hand. McCoughtry also grabbed six of her team-high 11 rebounds after halftime.
PLAYER OF THE GAME II: Louisville's Becky Burke. The Louisville freshman made two key 3-pointers late the second half. The second came with 3:28 left to give Louisville a 58-52 lead. Burke was also a key contributor to a Louisville defense that held the Sooners to just 25 second-half points. Burke picked up the duties on Whitney Hand in the second half, and Hand scored just two free throws after the break and went 0-for-3 from the field. She even handled the point for a key stretch when Deseree' Byrd went out with her fourth foul with 11:16 left and didn't return until the 7:09 mark. Burke finished with nine points and just one turnover.
PLAYER OF THE GAME III: The stat line isn't necessarily spectacular -- 14 points, 5-of-13 from the field and four rebounds -- but Bingham kept the Cardinals within striking distance during a first half in which McCoughtry was shut out. The Robin to McCoughtry's Batman, Bingham also anchored the Louisville offense from the high post for big stretches in the second half, which became especially key during the time that Byrd was on the bench with foul trouble. Bingham was the safety valve for Burke and took some pressure off the freshman, who was playing out of position at the point for those four minutes.
STAT OF THE GAME: The teams took turns starting slowly. Louisville didn't score its first field goal of the game until the 12:35 mark. Oklahoma went similarly cold to begin the second half; the Sooners' first field goal after the break came off an Ashley Paris layup with 12:58 to play. Oklahoma opened the game with a 16-2 run, while Louisville opened the second half with a 17-2 run.
STAT OF THE GAME II: After shooting 42.4 percent in the first 20 minutes, Oklahoma shot just 26.9 percent in the second half and made half as many field goals (seven) as it did in the first. The best individual example was Ashley Paris. She was 5-for-5 in the first half and made just 1 of 7 field goals in the second.
GOODBYE TO PARIS: By no means did Courtney Paris dominate in the low post like Oklahoma was hoping, but she did fairly well in her final game. She finished with 16 points and 16 rebounds, the 128th double-double of her career. The fact that she only managed 10 field goal attempts might have hurt the Sooners' cause, and even then, most of those came via offensive rebounds. Twin sister Ashley also had a solid final game with 14 points and eight boards.
HALFTIME ANALYSIS: The Sooners had a 34-22 lead at the half at Scottrade Center.
PLAYER OF THE HALF: Oklahoma's Whitney Hand. The freshman drew the defensive assignment on Angel McCoughtry and shut the Louisville All-American out for the entire half. In fact, Hand was simply the better player for the entire half, knocking down three 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes, including one that put the Sooners up, 16-2, at the 12:54 mark. She had nine points by the break.
PLAYER OF THE HALF II: Oklahoma's Courtney Paris. The senior didn't score much (just four points), but was a force on the glass with 11 rebounds. Most of her effectiveness came on the defensive end, where she grabbed eight of those rebounds.
PLAYER OF THE HALF III: Oklahoma's Ashley Paris. The "other" Paris was 5-for-5 from the field, led Oklahoma with 10 points and was the Sooners' most effective finisher on the break.
TURNING POINT: The opening tip. Oklahoma owned the first 20 minutes from the get-go. Louisville missed its first 13 shots from the field and failed to score for the first 5 minutes, 47 seconds of the game. Louisville managed to draw within 24-18 after two McCoughtry free throws with 3:54 left, but the Sooners never relinquished control.
STAT OF THE HALF: Amazingly, McCoughtry did not connect from the field in the first half. She picked up all four of her points from the free-throw line and didn't even score until the 3:54 mark. McCoughtry, who came in averaging 23.2 points per game, was 0-for-7 from the field. Louisville shot 6-for-27 (22 percent).
STAT OF THE HALF II: Harassed into some rushed shots, the Cardinals didn't connect on a field goal until 12:35 remained in the half.
THREE THINGS LOUISVILLE HAS TO DO TO WIN:
1. Relax and get better shots. Too many attempts came from one-on-one moves.
2. Move McCoughtry into space. Usually the senior finds ways to score even when things aren't going her way. Hand disrupted her rhythm early and then the senior, perhaps frustrated, didn't move as well without the ball during the final 10 minutes. She obviously has to score for Louisville to come back.
3. Forget the start. The first 10 minutes were as ugly as Louisville can be on offense. The good news is that the Cardinals are not out of the game despite the initial troubles.
THREE THINGS OKLAHOMA HAS TO DO TO WIN:
1. Maintain the pace. Even though fast-break buckets were hard to come by, the speed of the game early favored the Sooners, who weren't quite as good in their half-court offensive sets.
2. Control the paint. Oklahoma didn't necessarily use the low post to score much, but the Sooners' size was definitely a factor, most notably on the defensive end.
3. Effort. The defensive intensity was spectacular. The Sooners didn't let Louisville do anything it wanted to offensively. Another 20 minutes like that and Oklahoma will be playing for a national championship Tuesday night.
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com.