- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- Louisville coach Jeff Walz will tell you that there were moments during Antonita Slaughter's freshman year with the Cardinals when he thought she'd be better suited to fill the teams' water cups than play.
And he would tell her so. That had to hurt, right?
"I didn't take it personally," said Slaughter, now a junior, smiling.
But how could it not be personal? Slaughter is a hometown girl; she grew up in nearby Shelbyville. Her older sister, Toni, played two years for the Cardinals and her older brother A.J. at Western Kentucky. Family and friends were close by, often sitting in the stands, watching and waiting for her to become the star she had been at Christian Academy High School in Louisville.
"He really pushed me, but I just took it as a challenge to get better, to help this team," Slaughter said.
From that vantage point, mission accomplished. Slaughter has done her share to push Louisville into the national championship game for the second time in four years. The Cardinals play UConn in a rematch of the 2009 title game Tuesday night (8:30 ET/ESPN).
Slaughter, a 6-foot-1 guard, dropped a career-high seven 3-pointers against Baylor in the Sweet 16 and added six (in 10 attempts) in the national semifinal win Sunday night against Cal, matching a Final Four single-game record.
"She has made more big shots in this tournament than anybody I can remember in any five-game stretch," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "All I can say is if we're there and we have a hand in her face and she still makes them, then God bless them, they deserve to win."
In five NCAA tournament games, Slaughter has hit 17 treys in 38 attempts (44.7 percent). The NCAA tournament record for 3-pointers is 20, shared by Connecticut's Maya Moore (2010) and Diana Taurasi ('03) and Alabama's Betsy Harris (1994).
"We just get her the ball when she's open," teammate Bria Smith said. "If we see her at the 3-point line and she's open, we are saying, 'We have to get the ball to her.' She's a shooter."
Slaughter has always been a shooter. Walz recruited her largely because of her perimeter talent. But when she arrived, Walz said he saw a player who didn't know what it took to get better.
"There were many times her freshman year when I told her she'd stay on scholarship, but she would be the water girl," Walz said. "Because she wouldn't try. She didn't give the effort that I knew she had to give to be great."
Smith said as a freshman, Slaughter was more of a "practice player."
"She was kind of down on herself, kind of confused about what she was supposed to do," Smith said. "With repetition and working so hard over the summer, it just built confidence in her shot and in her abilities."
Walz called Slaughter's sophomore year "good, but not great." The coach continued to push, challenged her to spend her summer in the gym, putting up more shots.
"I told her, for us to be as good as I think we can, you've got to be a 40 percent 3-point shooter," Walz said.
For much of her junior season, she has been close, save a 4-for-34 slump over a five-game stretch, including the Big East tournament. She had a run of 14 missed attempts in a row. How did she get out of it? She kept shooting.
"Definitely when you are making them, it's a physical thing, but when you are missing, it's more mental. That's when your team comes in and they give you courage and confidence," said Slaughter, who averaged a career-best 10.2 points a game this season and has upped that to 12.8 in the NCAA tournament.
Walz has not been the only one to push Slaughter. Her teammates seem to do their share as well. If Slaughter is struggling with her confidence, forward Sara Hammond reminds her of how important her contributions are.
"She is a deadly 3-pointer shooter and she's the best on our team at it, but I don't think sometimes she believes in herself," Hammond said. "Sometimes she would come to me on the bench and say, 'Sara, my shots aren't falling, what do I need to do?' and we just tell her, 'You're the best shooter on this team.' When we come out of a timeout, I go up and say to her, 'Bombs away, Nita. Let it fly.'"
Gone are the days when Slaughter "didn't try," to use Walz's characterization. Teammate Sheronne Vails said she can't count the number of times Slaughter has pulled her into the gym to shoot. Over the summer, they would be in the gym sometimes until after midnight.
"Every time she gets the ball, we tell her, 'Just shoot it, Nita,'" Vails said. "We know she's been in the gym so she can make those shots. She could probably make those shots with her eyes closed."
She can certainly make them without looking down. Slaughter said she didn't know where she was on the floor Sunday night against Cal when she hit some of those 3-pointers.
"People were telling me last night, 'Man, you were shooting so deep,' but I can't really tell," she said. "I am so focused that I don't realize where I am when I am shooting it."
Most of Slaughter's family is in New Orleans for the Final Four. Her brother A.J. is playing basketball overseas in France. They hooked up for a Facetime session after Sunday night's semifinal game. A.J. said he is trying to talk his coach into letting him fly in to be at Tuesday night's national championship game.
"My brother told me, 'I think you can actually outshoot me now,'" Slaughter said. "Being from a basketball family, it's nice to have a little competition."