1. Jeff Walz is an expert motivator. The Louisville coach does not bite his tongue around his players when they're not living up to his standards. "He's brutally honest to the point where you might want to leave and not come back," said senior forward Candyce Bingham. But Walz's pointed criticism get results. When Angel McCoughtry was struggling in the first half of the Cardinals national semifinal game against Oklahoma on Sunday, he only needed a few words to rattle her cage. She responded with a 14-point effort in the second half, which started with a 6-0 run that helped the Cardinals to their first lead.
Still, as much as Walz is known for his tough love, players say he's a pretty good cheerleader too. And he's got the Cardinals believing that they can pull off the improbable if they play to their potential. "If we can find a way to play a better basketball game for 40 minutes," he said, "well, then we win."
2. The supporting cast is showing signs of fight. Everybody knows what McCoughtry brings to the table, but the Cardinals probably don't get this far without Bingham extending her line score contributions -- in addition to her 14-point effort the Sooners, she had four assists and a steal -- and Desereé Byrd settling in at the point. (She had never played the position before this year.) But the pleasant surprise in Sunday's game was sophomore Keisha Hines. She had nine points, 10 rebounds, a block and a steal in just 19 minutes against the Sooners. If she can challenge the Huskies' frontline as spiritedly as she did the Sooners', the Cardinals' chances improve.
3. Revenge, revenge, revenge. "I wish we were playing anybody but Louisville on Tuesday night," UConn's Geno Auriemma said after his team's semifinal blowout of Stanford -- and his fears are well founded. After clobbering Louisville by a combined 67 points in their last two meetings, Auriemma expects the Cardinals will be out for retribution. "The last team you want to play is a team that you beat the way we beat them," Auriemma said. "Especially the last time we beat them."
Indeed, Connecticut throttled Louisville by 39 in the Big East tournament championship on March 10. But the Huskies caught a Cardinals team that had just played 290 minutes of close basketball in a two-day span -- a gauntlet that began with a double-overtime quarterfinal victory over Rutgers. Louisville was running on fumes by the time it reached the final, but no one in its locker room is using fatigue as a crutch. "We were so tired," McCoughtry said. "We would never use that an excuse, but after the double overtime players were tired. I didn't have a lot of lift on my shot [against UConn]." With a day to rest, she continued, "I'm hoping it'll be a lot different this time."
4. Fan support will be strong. Early round games in Baton Rouge and Raleigh made seeing the Cardinals a challenge for supporters. But now that the Cardinals are playing just four hours west of Louisville in St. Louis, fans have surfaced at Scottrade Center. During Sunday night's game, the Cardinals showed just how well they can play when the crowd is behind them. Their full-throated support en mass and the singular encouragement New York Jets safety and Louisville alum Kerry Rhodes offered McCoughtry, who looked to bounce back from a first-half shooting slump, helped Louisville rally from a 14-point deficit to an upset of Oklahoma. The Cardinals fanbase is expected to swell for tonight's game; word is they'll be traveling across I-64 by the busloads.
5. There's no such thing as a sure thing. The New England Patriots were supposed to run the table in 2007, and then they ran into the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. Houston looked like the team of destiny in 1983, until they ran into NC State in the national-title game.
Certainly at 38-0, UConn is about the closest thing there is in sports to a lock. (All four teams who have entered the national-championship game undefeated have gone on to win the game.) But much the same was said of the Huskies in 1997, when they were 33-0, until they ran into Tennessee in the Elite Eight. It could happen -- anything could happen -- and the Cardinals, who weren't even supposed to be here in the first place, are already living out a fantasy.
McCoughtry, for one, believes she knows how it ends. "I've actually had a dream about [winning it all]," she said, "putting on the hat, running up and down the court. Hopefully my dream can come true."