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April 8, 2009

The last dance

The lady Cards make their way to the NCAA championship

Because of LEO’s deadline, the NCAA championship game between the U of L and UConn women’s teams was played after this story had to be filed.

It’s probably a good thing. This year’s Huskies are the most dominating team in the history of the sport. They have battered the Cardinals twice this season already. A Cardinal win would be, frankly, icing on the cake, one of the greatest upsets in the history of college athletic competition.

The real Louisville story is that Jeff Walz and his gutty band of Cardinals made it to the championship game. Read on.

In ESPN’s coverage before Sunday’s semifinal tilts, one would have had to listen carefully to know that Louisville was even playing.

There were stories about Connecticut’s eminently disagreeable coach, Geno Auriemma, about Stanford’s überblonde Amazonian center, Jayne Appel, about UConn’s season-long dominance, about those Oklahoma Paris sisters, Ashley and Courtney, and their teammates with superstar heritages.

Oklahoma’s Carlee Roethlisberger is the sister of Ben, quarterback for the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Whitney Hand’s dad was a major league pitcher. Abi Olajuwon’s dad scored a few points and nabbed some boards in the NBA for the Houston Rockets. And Louisville native Bubba Paris, the Paris sisters’ papa, was a Pro Bowl lineman in the NFL.

Finally, a couple minutes before the Louisville/Oklahoma tip-off, the announcers mentioned the Cards, the usual stuff about Angel and neophyte mentor Jeff Walz. And as usual, commentator Kara Lawson smugly picked Louisville to lose.

Then the Cardinals proceeded to start the game as if the media disrespect was appropriate.

They missed their first 150 or so field goal attempts. They failed to get back on defense, leading to a plethora of Sooner bunnies. They threw the ball where there were no teammates.

Louisville fell behind 0-11, then 2-16. Almost six minutes had elapsed before the Cards canned a couple free throws. U of L’s first field goal came with only 12:35 left in the half.

It was not a pretty sight.

During the TV intros, Angel McCoughtry described herself as a “Dunker, Driven, Christian and Goofy.” What she really is, besides a very good basketball player, is, to use horseracing parlance, fractious. She is often unruly on the court, plays outside herself and seems easily irritated. During the opening 20 minutes, she didn’t make a field goal, and was ordered to a bench seat next to coach to calm down.

The Cards were down, but these gallant gals are nothing if not full of guile. They pulled within 12 at the half, 22-34.

Of his Michigan State Spartans, who like the Louisville women bested a couple of No. 1 seeds to make it to the NCAA championship game, Tom Izzo said, “You don’t get this far on grit.”

Candyce Bingham, Deseree Byrd, Becky Burke, Keisha Hines, Monique Reid and that Angel baller beg to disagree.

In the same manner they used to overcome LSU on their home court in the sub-regionals, and higher-ranked Baylor and Maryland in the regionals, the Cardinals womaned up in the second half. As the articulate Bingham succinctly stated, “This team just doesn’t quit.”

Uh, no, they don’t.

U of L started the second half on a 13-1 run to tie the game at 35.

With 11:57 to play, McCoughtry blocked a Sooner trey. At the second-to-last TV timeout, the teams were square at 46, trading the lead for the next four minutes.

Then the Sooners flinched. The Cardinals didn’t.

At the last TV timeout, Louisville led 55-50. The steely squad of overachievers never faltered. When needed, they hit threes and free throws and rebounded and defended. That Angel hoopster settled in, as winners do, finishing the night with 18 points and 11 rebounds.

No McDonald’s All-Americans? No problem. Yet again, for the 34th time this season, Louisville willed its way to a win.

So Courtney Paris ended her evening and college basketball career, owing her school a bunch of Benjamins to repay her tuition, as she had previously promised to do if her squad fell short of the championship.

And the Cardinals moved on to a cherished spot, playing on the last night of the season. Before the game, Jeff Walz told his team “to just kind of stop and take four or five minutes to look around and enjoy it, because it’s an opportunity that we hope to get back here many times.”

My, my — what a beginning.

Read c d kaplan’s sports blog, updated daily, at score.leoweekly.com.