Commentary

Seeds aside, the better team won

3-seed Louisville gets big night from stars, bench to topple No. 1 Terps

Originally Published: March 30, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

RALEIGH, N.C. -- When Angel McCoughtry was growing up in Baltimore and would go out to play pickup basketball, she'd always get a warning from her dad, Roi.

"He was like, 'Come in before dark,'" McCoughtry said. "But that's when the pickup games got good, when it was getting dark. And the lights would come on, and I'd have to come home. I would get in trouble because I would always come home late. I was always outside, playing basketball."

Well, McCoughtry is about to play where the lights are brightest of all in her sport: at the women's Final Four, a showcase the Louisville program is going to for the first time.

[+] EnlargeAngel McCoughtry
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonAngel McCoughtry's 21 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and three steals in 40 minutes all added up to Louisville's first trip to the Final Four.

The third-seeded Cardinals dispatched top seed Maryland 77-60 on Monday in a game that didn't feel like an upset. It felt like the better team won. Louisville's dominance on this night was established early and never faltered.

McCoughtry was the Most Outstanding Player of the Raleigh Regional, finishing with 21 points, 13 rebounds and three assists in 40 minutes against the Terps.

She was also a big part of the Louisville defensive effort that controlled this game, as was fellow senior Candyce Bingham, who had 15 points and six rebounds.

Maryland senior Marissa Coleman, who went for 42 points against Vanderbilt in the semifinals, had 18 Monday, with a chunk of those coming after the game was all but out of the Terps' grasp.

Coleman and Kristi Toliver ended their college careers in tears on the bench, where their former assistant at Maryland, Louisville head coach Jeff Walz, came over after the game to comfort them.

Walz said it was one of the toughest games he had to coach, because of his fondness for Coleman and Toliver, whom he had helped recruit. Not as tough as coaching against his sister, Jamie Walz, when she was at Western Kentucky and he was an assistant at Nebraska. But still, tough.

However, it was also tough on Coleman and Toliver -- because Walz knew every quirk about how they play. He knew exactly how to game plan for the two Terps seniors.

But even in his most optimistic plans when he took over at Louisville in 2007, he couldn't have quite conceived of making the Final Four in his second season as head coach. Especially not after losing his starting center, Chauntise Wright, to an ACL injury before the season began. He also had a new point guard, sophomore Deseree' Byrd.

Still, Walz thought he had a pretty good group. And two losses to Connecticut -- in the regular season and the Big East tournament final -- did not dampen his growing optimism about the Cardinals. He felt really good when he saw the bracket, even though he believed his team was better than a No. 3 seed.

[+] EnlargeDeseree Byrd
AP Photo/Sara D. DavisThirty years after Larry Bird led Indiana State to the Final Four in St. Louis, Deseree' Byrd, left, makes the march to the Arch.

"When we lost Chauntise, we got a little thin and a little small," he said. "But we knew we had two special players in Angel and Candyce. And we needed to develop one more, and Des became that third one. She became pretty steady for us every night.

"I worked for [former Nebraska and Western Kentucky coach] Paul Sanderford for six years, and he always told me, 'If you can get three kids you can count on every night, you can beat a lot of people. If you can get four of them, then you're really good. And if you get five, you're winning a national championship."

As for the fourth and fifth players that his team needs, Walz has a variety who have stepped forward. On Monday, the Louisville bench outscored the Maryland bench 24-0, with Becky Burke getting 10 points, Keshia Hines eight and Monique Reid six. Those three players also combined for 14 rebounds.

Louisville becomes the second program from the basketball-crazy state of Kentucky to make the women's Final Four. Sanderford coached Western Kentucky to that height twice: in 1985 and 1992.

Walz is a Kentucky native who played at Division II Northern Kentucky, graduating in 1995. He's from a family of educators and got into high school and AAU coaching before Sanderford brought him aboard at Western Kentucky.

Sanderford then went to Nebraska, taking Walz with him. In 2001, Walz went to work for Brenda Frese in Minnesota, then they went on to Maryland the next year. Walz was celebrating with Coleman and Toliver when they beat Duke as freshmen in the 2006 NCAA title game, then comforting them when his team ended their careers without another Final Four trip.

The oft-told story about Walz and McCoughtry, who had won the Big East Player of the Year award as a sophomore before Connecticut's Maya Moore swept the accolade the past two seasons, was how he convinced her that a better attitude on court would allow her to improve as a player.

On Monday, McCoughtry showed she does have leadership skills, such as when she gathered her teammates together when Bingham picked up her fourth foul and said, "Don't worry, we've got this."

But McCoughtry also sometimes says what's on her mind in ways that might seem abrasive. In her television interview right after Monday's victory, she pointed out that ESPN analyst Kara Lawson had picked Maryland to win, and that she was going to seek out Lawson in St. Louis.

(Gee, poor Kara. Last year she got grief from her alma mater, Tennessee, for picking Stanford in the NCAA final, and this year it's McCoughtry. Why do people take these picks so seriously?)

[+] EnlargeDes Byrd, Angel McCoughtry
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeDeseree' Byrd helped lift the Cardinals (and Angel McCoughtry) to their first Final Four.

"I wasn't kidding -- I'm ready to talk to Kara," McCoughtry said in the locker room afterward, smiling. "I was watching ESPN before our game and she said, 'I believe Maryland is going to do it.'"

But, hey, there was plenty of reason to believe Maryland could do it -- after all, the Terps were the No. 1 seed. However, this is McCoughtry's chance to blow Louisville's horn, and so she's going to do that. And why not?

When you talk to McCoughtry, you find out that she can be quite funny and gracious, too, so don't take just what you see in TV sound bites to be the "real" Angel. Truth is, the "real" Angel is a complex person who paid dues to get her trip to the Final Four.

She went to college prep school in North Carolina for a year after finishing high school and was pretty miserable there. When Louisville asked her to come on a visit, she went in part just to have somewhere to go.

She said when she made the decision to play for Louisville, a lot of people said, "What? Why on earth are you going there?"

Her father, though, supported the decision. He told her going to a school like Louisville would give her a chance to help a program make a name for itself in the women's game. And then last season, Walz and Bingham came aboard, too, with the same idea.

Bingham actually grew up in Louisville and went to high school in the city, but she opted to go to Xavier. After feeling frustrated with her progress (and the team's), she transferred to Louisville and sat out the 2006-2007 season. She acknowledges that when she joined the Cardinals, she really wasn't thinking she'd reach this level.

"I was just going there because I knew they had a good chance of getting into the NCAA tournament," she said. "But to go to the Final Four? No. Then, I never dreamed of that."

But she clicked with McCoughtry, because Bingham also had a strong work ethic and soon figured out that maybe the Cardinals could do more than she originally had hoped for. And by the time they lost to North Carolina in the Sweet 16 last year, both McCoughtry and Bingham believed they should have gone further.

Their junior season ended at the New Orleans Regional, and this year, their NCAA tournament path went back through Bayou country. They had to play No. 6 seed LSU on its home court in the second round.

Walz assured his team that was the key game to getting to St. Louis. Fight through to the second round, he said, and we'll make it the rest of the way.

"Coach told us if we got past LSU, we would be here," Bingham said. "And we're going."

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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