2009 NCAA Tournament Preview: Heaven Sent - Sports Illustrated

Heaven Sent

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Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich hasn't decided yet where he'll put the statue of Angel McCoughtry, the Cardinals' 6' 1" senior All-America forward. Should it go outside the new 22,000-seat Downtown Arena, due to open in November 2010? Or somewhere on campus? Perhaps a prominent spot among the array of facilities at the Cardinal Park sports complex? As he ponders this, Jurich sits in Freedom Hall, calling out greetings as a parade of wealthy and well-connected locals file into his suite to eat, drink and hobnob before the Cardinals women paste Pittsburgh 75-51 on Senior Day. "I want to make sure Angel is properly remembered around here as an icon, as a true pioneer," he says.

It's likely that the 11,355 fans -- including Mayor Jerry Abramson and his wife, Madeline, courtside patrons for the last four years -- who have shown up appropriately dressed for today's white-out game will remember McCoughtry whether she's immortalized in bronze or not. It's unlikely that any player anywhere does as much for her team as McCoughtry does for the seventh-ranked Cardinals, who will carry a program-best 29-4 record and No. 3 seed into the NCAA tournament. With her relentless competitiveness ("On a scale of one to 10, I'm a 50," she says) and her ability to make things happen at both ends of the floor, McCoughtry averages 23.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and a nation's-best 4.6 steals a game. She is the only player in Big East history to lead the conference in all three categories for three consecutive years. "You have to run your offense away from her because she makes so many defensive plays and she's such a passionate rebounder," says DePaul coach Doug Bruno. "Even if she's having a tough offensive game, she's still going to get 10 points off steals and another six on putbacks. She'll have 16 or 18 points before she even gets her offensive stuff cooking."

On Jan. 31, McCoughtry became the most prolific scorer in Louisville history, blowing by the mark of 2,333 points set by Cardinals legend Darrell Griffith, who coincidentally wore the same number, 35.

"I was elated for her," says Griffith, who is now both a special assistant to university president James Ramsey and an avid Cardinals women's basketball fan. "You couldn't write a better story than having a female number 35 break the record."

Yet there is much more to the Cardinals' story. The milestones, the teeming crowds, the ascendance of a women's program that even men's coach Rick Pitino brags about on his weekly radio show: "That all took a village," says senior associate athletic director Julie Hermann. But none of it might have happened had McCoughtry and Jurich not brought to Louisville -- a school McCoughtry hadn't heard of four years ago -- their forward thinking and their stubborn persistence. "Tom and Angel are two people who both think, If I can dream it, I can do it, and I'm not interested in any counter-opinions to that," says Hermann. This is a story of two people who won't take no for an answer.

When jurich arrived in Louisville from Colorado State in 1997, he was determined to make a first-rate, comprehensive athletic department out of what was, he says, "essentially just a men's basketball program." At the time, that program, along with women's volleyball, was under NCAA investigation for accusations of recruiting misdeeds and a lack of institutional control. (The basketball team escaped major sanctions.) Women's athletics in general was a Title IX lawsuit waiting to happen. Only two women's coaches -- for basketball and volleyball -- were full-time employees. Gender proportionality was perilously out of whack (at the time women made up 52% of the student body but only 33% of the athletes), and the facilities, says now retired Title IX consultant Lamar Daniel, "were about as poor as existed in the NCAA."

Rather than cut men's sports, as many programs around the country have done, Jurich added three women's sports -- golf, softball and rowing -- right away and a fourth, lacrosse, in 2008. Ignoring the squawking of some old-guard boosters, Jurich embarked on a flurry of fund-raising, building and refurbishing that, by the time the state-owned Downtown Arena opens next year, will provide each of Louisville's 21 sports with state-of-the-art facilities to go with their championship expectations. (In all, $135 million in capital improvements will have been made when the work is done.) Jurich's plans for women's basketball, a program that had been good at times but never great, struck some donors as ludicrous. In his second year Jurich moved the women from Cardinal Arena, where they rarely filled the 1,300 bleacher seats, to 19,000-seat Freedom Hall, which the men packed for every game. "Some people called it a waste of money," says Jurich, "but even if only 50 people were showing up, playing there means something in this community."

To fill seats Hermann started networking among the city's most powerful women, whether they were sports fans or not, drawing them to games with the promise of wine and cheese receptions and courtside seats. "It turns out a lot of those women have powerful husbands, and they started coming, too," says Hermann. "People got hooked. Now women's basketball is a place to see and be seen."

During McCoughtry's career, attendance has more than tripled. The year before she arrived, home attendance averaged 1,774; this year it was 7,111, 12th in the nation. And if every last one of those fans had wanted an autograph after a game, McCoughtry would've made it happen. "I want to give everyone time even if it takes all night," she says. "It took me awhile to realize it, but I affect lives."

Until a few years ago McCoughtry would have been a long shot for program poster girl. That she had talent was indisputable, but she also had a stubborn streak that had often reduced her mom, Sharon, to tears when Angel was a toddler. Even Angel's imposing 6' 5" father, Roi, a self-described "tough dad" who played forward for Coppin State in the late 1970s, couldn't always withstand her will. When Angel, then 16, asked Roi one day if she could play on his men's team at the Baltimore church where he has served as pastor for the last 13 years, he said no. "These were grown men, and I didn't want her to get hurt," says Roi. "But this being Angel, that wasn't the end of it. It was, 'Dad, can I play?' No. 'Dad, can I play?' No. 'Dad, can I play?' " Roi sighs at the memory. "I let her play. She scored, she rebounded, she blocked shots, she even stole the ball from me," he says. "That's when I first realized how good she was."

As a senior at St. Francis High, McCoughtry was named Baltimore's metro player of the year, and she signed with St. John's. But when a low SAT score diverted her to the Patterson School in Lenoir, N.C., for a year, she reopened her recruiting. Florida State was interested, as was a school she couldn't place, Louisville. She took a visit to the Derby City only as an excuse to get off Patterson's campus. But quite unexpectedly, she says, "I got this intuition that this is where I needed to be."

Her first year was a struggle. She was late to meetings, slept through workouts, argued with refs, shot just 55% from the free throw line and regularly tested the patience of then coach Tom Collen. McCoughtry didn't mask her emotions, slumping her shoulders and hanging her head when things didn't go her way. "I wanted to transfer, and I'm sure Coach Collen wanted me to, too," she says. (Indeed, Collen told her he had a one-way ticket back to Baltimore on his desk.) During one game the coach's frustrations with her exploded. "I hadn't made a shot outside the paint all night," she recalls. "Coach said, 'I don't want you shooting, you can't shoot! Just rebound!' "

But rather than cow her, the words inspired McCoughtry. "I thought, No one is going to tell me I can't do something ever again," she says. That summer she took 500 shots a day to develop her jumper and improve her scoring around the basket. And as a sophomore she flourished offensively, averaging 21.5 points (including 72% from the free throw line), 10.3 rebounds and 3.2 steals as Louisville went 26-8 and cracked the Top 25 for the first time in school history. McCoughtry earned Big East Player of the Year and All-America honors from the women's coaches association, both firsts for the program. "She was a good, solid freshman, but you never would have predicted that the next year she would be in contention for national player of the year," says DePaul's Bruno. "It was one of the greatest transformations I've seen in my life in coaching. It was like watching a different player."

McCoughtry wasn't finished. That spring Collen left to coach Arkansas, and he was replaced by Maryland assistant Jeff Walz, a Kentucky native whose friendly demeanor belies a passionate, demanding style that reminded Jurich of Pitino's. One of the first things Walz did was show McCoughtry a video of her negative body language. "I was shocked," says McCoughtry. "Is this really how I look? Is this what everyone has been talking about? I had to change that and channel my energy in a more positive way."

As last year's team went 21-10 and reached the Sweet 16, McCoughtry felt a new sense of purpose. She embraced her role as team leader and face of the program, spending hours signing autographs and responding to the fan mail she gets every week. In December she started writing a book aimed at helping young girls overcome their obstacles. "I want those girls to look at my story and see that they can change," she says.

Moreover, McCoughtry started channeling Jurich, urging Hermann to further push the envelope for the program. When McCoughtry learned that 8,000 of the 19,123 fans who squeezed into Freedom Hall for last year's Connecticut game got in for free, she challenged Hermann to do better. "She said, 'Miss Hermann, I want sold-out attendance, paid, at Freedom Hall, and I'll help you do it,' " recalls Hermann. With every player, coach, friend and relative serving as ticket brokers, 16,337 people showed up for the Kentucky game this past Dec. 14. A month later 15,323 saw the Rutgers game. Nearly everyone at both games paid admission.

McCoughtry also persuaded Hermann to get her number 35 jersey onto shelves at local stores -- a first for a female player at Louisville -- with the promise that she would make sure they sold out. (Only a handful of the original 300 are still available, to be used for a fund-raising auction.) "Not only is she willing to hold the grown-ups accountable, she understands her end of the bargain," says Hermann. "That is to sign autographs, to make appearances, to carry herself in a way in which no one ever says, 'I don't want to support that.' "

Part of that bargain is also to win games, and McCoughtry doesn't do that by herself. Fellow senior Candyce Bingham, a 6' 1" forward, contributes 12.3 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, as well as a lagoonlike calm that nicely balances McCoughtry's on-court fire, while 5' 9" sophomore Desereé Byrd adds 7.6 points and 5.2 assists at point guard, a position she never played before this year. But without 6' 3" senior center Chauntise Wright, who is sitting out the season after tearing her right ACL in October, the Cards are undersized (no starter is taller than 6' 1"), and with just two upperclassmen, they are young. "Our margin of error is very thin," says Walz. "Connecticut may be able to have a bad game and still win; we can't." (That point was driven home when the Huskies routed Louisville 75-36 in the Big East conference title game on March 10.)

Whatever happens in this the title game, Collen, for one, sees big things ahead for McCoughtry. "I am more proud of her as a person than a player," he says. "And I've told every WNBA coach who has called me that they would be crazy not to take her [in the draft]." McCoughtry also sees big things ahead for Louisville, including national titles. "When Candyce and I leave, it's not the end of an era, it's just the beginning," she says. "I want this program to be the caliber of Tennessee and UConn, and I want Coach Walz to make the Hall of Fame."

Miss Hermann will get on that right away.