Cards come together for comeback
Louisville rallies from ugly first half to advance to first championship game
ST. LOUIS -- In the first half of Sunday's opening semifinal, you had to be wondering who the heck the team in red was. Louisville? This was Louisville? The team that got to the Women's Final Four after more or less pounding a No. 2 seed and a No. 1 seed in the Raleigh Regional?
The Cardinals fell behind 11-0, and trailed by 12 at the break. They were 6-of-27 from the field, with star Angel McCoughtry leading the miss parade at 0-for-7 and at times wearing that "I'm about one second from going Vesuvius" expression.
Fellow senior Candyce Bingham was the only Louisville player who didn't look like an imposter, but even she was just 2-of-6 from the floor. Oklahoma was running the Cardinals ragged. And whatever damage the Sooners weren't doing to Louisville, the Cardinals were doing to themselves, exchanging sour looks and words.
Their only good news was that, with the way they played, the score really could have been worse.
"Us missing shots got the best of us -- we got beat in transition, on offensive boards," Louisville point guard Deseree' Byrd said. "We just got beat. They brutally beat us.
"In the second half, I told them, 'Everybody smile. Just smile. We're coming out and we're going to win this game.' Angel said so. Candyce said so. And, gosh darn it, we won this game."
Yes, they really did, 61-59. In the program's first Final Four, the Cardinals are now also in their first title game. They survived their lousy first half, being outrebounded by nine in the game, giving up Courtney Paris' final collegiate double-double (16 and 16), and a last-second 3-pointer that could have pulled it out of the fire for the Sooners.
A 17-2 run at the start of the second half by Louisville erased the Sooners' edge and turned the game into a real contest again, which it would remain until the end.
Then, after Bingham missed a free throw with 7 seconds left, OU's Ashley Paris snared a difficult rebound and got the ball to Danielle Robinson, who heaved it ahead to Nyeshia Stevenson. She launched the shot that might have kept the Sooners' dream going. And if you could somehow have frozen the ball at the zenith of its arc, here is what was on the minds of the primary characters watching it.
• McCoughtry was thinking she should have been over to defend the shot. She came to Louisville after a mostly miserable year of college prep school, and people asked the Baltimore native why she was going all the way out to Kentucky. Something had told her it was the right place, and it turned out to be more right than she'd ever imagined.
Her time with the Cardinals would have been over if that shot had gone in. Of course, that would have been devastating. And yet
"At the same time, I would have had no regrets, and I felt like we all laid it on the line," she said of her thoughts as the ball headed to the basket. "I've had a great season, and no complaints."
• Bingham was still mad at herself for missing the free throw that kept the door open for OU to potentially win on its final possession. It had been an uncharacteristic game for her on the boards, with just four rebounds, but she'd been a big part of trying to defend against the Paris twins. Plus, she kept telling McCoughtry to relax and just be herself in the second half.
The 6-foot-1 Bingham had to become even more of a workhorse inside after starting center Chauntise Wright went down with an ACL injury before the season.
"This team just doesn't quit," Bingham said. "We weren't going to let not having our center stop us."
Bingham, a Louisville native, had bypassed her hometown university to go to Xavier, but then changed her mind after two seasons and transferred.
At a pep rally in Louisville before the team left for St. Louis, Bingham took a microphone to address all the fans and no words would come out. Tears streamed down her cheeks, she was so moved by how this had all turned out.
She watched Stevenson's shot thinking, "Oh, man, there it goes. Please don't go in, please don't go in."
• Courtney Paris was trying to get in position for the offensive rebound. How many of those things had she snagged in four years at Oklahoma? Counting five on Sunday, it was 742, an NCAA career record. But she didn't get a chance at 743. Time ran out.
Courtney and Ashley Paris had come to Oklahoma from California's Bay Area, and the twins learned to slow down and chat with all the people in the Midwest who came to care about them. This wasn't OU's first trip to the Final Four; the Sooners had previously gone in 2002. But with Courtney's record-breaking play, her warm gentle-giant personality and her pledge to win it all because she "owed" it to the fans, she made this team beloved in all corners of Oklahoma.
"I sure was hoping it was in," Courtney Paris said of her view of Stevenson's shot. "It looked good."
Another second, perhaps, and she could have corralled that offensive rebound for a putback. But the buzzer sounded.
Afterward, McCoughtry talked about how the Cardinals as a team had pulled it together. She was the key, finishing with 18 points (all in the second half) and 11 rebounds. Bingham had 14 points. Freshman Becky Burke had nine points, including two huge 3-pointers. Keshia Hines also scored nine.
The Sooners had four players in double figures, but it wasn't enough. Following Courtney's 16 points, Ashley had 14, Whitney Hand 11 and Stevenson 10.
"I thought they outworked us in the second half, I really did," OU coach Sherri Coale said of the Cardinals.
And Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who'd asked his team at halftime why it wasn't believing in itself anymore, didn't have that question at the end.
"It was a game [in which] we just had to dig down," he said. "I knew it was tightness; It was jitters [in the first half]. I had to just try to get our team calmed down. I am just really, really proud of how we responded."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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