ST. LOUIS -- For the last four years, Oklahoma has hitched its wagon to Courtney Paris, and for the last four years, she has risen to the challenge. She owns college basketball's longest double-double streak and is the women's game's first four-time All-American. She upped the ante too, promising to refund Oklahoma some $64,000 in scholarship money if she failed to deliver on her promise of bringing a national championship to Norman.
But with Oklahoma's season hanging in the balance Sunday night, it wasn't Paris but Nyeshia Stephenson who held the Sooners' title hopes in her hands. With :07 left and her team down two, the junior super sub fielded an inbounds pass and bolted the length of the court toward the basket. But as she neared the left elbow, her prospects of reaching the cup narrowing with each step, she let fly with a three-pointer with :01 left. The shot rattled around the cylinder and then bounced out as time expired, sending Robinson collapsing to the floor as the relieved Louisville Cardinals and their overjoyed fans stormed the Scottrade Center court to celebrate the team's 61-59 (BOX | RECAP) victory and first national championship berth in program history. "All I saw in the paint was red," Stephenson said. "It was a panic situation and I did not have time to think. In my head I just knew [the shot] was going in."
Early on, it didn't appear as if the Sooners would need to resort to a last-second shot; they were well on their way to an ugly blowout. They opened an 11-0 lead with their transition game and helped pushed the advantage to 16-2 with a pair of Whitney Hand three-pointers. The Cardinals, meanwhile, struggled all game to find a rhythm. They missed their first 13 shots and didn't score their first points until the 12:36 mark.
Angel McCoughtry, the Cardinals' All-America scoring threat, was anything but in the first half. She missed all seven of her shots attempts. All of her four first-half points came from the foul line, one of the few places the Cardinals eeked out an advantage. While Oklahoma's offense went into a slump, Louisville used a 10-of-12 free-throw shooting effort to claw to within six before the Sooners went on a 10-4 run on their way to a 34-22 halftime lead.
In the locker room, Louisville coach Jeff Waltz didn't hesitate to call McCoughtry out for her poor performance. "You know Coach can be very blunt at times," she said. "He said, 'You played like crap; you didn't play like an All-American.' I said, 'You know what? You're right, Coach.' I had to just let the jitters go."
But it took a pep talk from New York Jets safety Kerry Rhodes -- the Louisville alum was camped out along with the rest of the Cardinals faithful behind the Louisville bench -- to get McCoughtry to settle down. "You got this," he told her.
McCoughtry's game quickly came together after that. She sparked the Cardinals to a 6-0 run, first swishing a baseline jumper in front of her bench, then hitting a breakaway lay-up off a steal, then another tough jumper in traffic to give the Cardinals their first lead of the game, 37-35. And though she struggled with foul trouble, McCoughtry managed to match that intensity on the defensive end. She soared through the Sooners' imposing front line for rebounds and, midway through the half, slapped a Jenny Vining three-point attempt out of bounds and into the press seats.
McCoughtry's feistiness, along with a pair of timely threes from Becky Burke, helped the Cardinals to a 58-52 edge with 3:31 to go. The Sooners kept things close by working the ball inside to Paris, whom the Cardinals double-teamed, collapsed around and mostly struggled to defend without fouling. Her season and her scholarship on the line, she made a layup with 8.2 seconds left to cut Louisville's lead to 60-59. On the ensuing inbounds, Candyce Bingham was fouled right after the catch and converted the front end of a one-and-one to give the Cardinals some breathing room.
That set up Robinson's mad dash the other way. When the buzzer sound, McCoughtry said, "My heart came out of my chest."
But for Paris, it wasn't that sound but the prospect of having to pay back all that tuition that was more daunting. "I will make good on the guarantee," she said. "Not today, though. Obviously, I don't have the $64,000 [on me]."