The Cardinals, who didn’t score a field goal until 12:36 in the first half and shot 22.2 percent for the period, came roaring back early in the second half to overcome a 22-34 halftime deficit and take the lead.
Senior forwards Angel McCoughtry and Candyce Bingham and sophomores Deseree Byrd and Keshia Hinds fueled a 13-1 run to tie the game at 35 less than four minutes into the period. Louisville lead by as much as six with 3:31 to go. Oklahoma battled back, but the Cardinals were able to hold off the charging Sooners in the last minute of play, thanks to two Bingham free throws.
The Sooners still had a chance to tie or win the game, as Stevenson's wide-open three-point attempt in the final seconds dropped into the hoop, then broke the hearts of Oklahoma fans by bouncing right back out.
The Cardinals shot 47.1 percent in the second half.
“That took a lot of heart,” McCoughtry said of her teammates’ efforts in the second half. “To come back and play against this Oklahoma team who have a lot of great players, and to come back with the win –- that took a lot of heart right there.”
McCoughtry, an athletic player predicted by many to be picked first in this week’s WNBA draft, scored only four points in the first half –- all on free throws. Coach Jeff Walz had words for her at halftime.
“I told McCoughtry she was an embarrassment, because that’s the way we do things in our program –- we’re honest,” Walz said. “Then she came out in the second half and played the way she was supposed to play.”
McCoughtry credited Oklahoma’s first-half defense, but also said her team was nervous going into its first Final Four appearance.
“Unfortunately I think we had the jitters, and I think it took us until the second half to get over them,” she said.
But Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma who was watching the game said it was Oklahoma who had cause to be nervous. "For [Louisville] to only be down 12 and [McCoughtry] hasn't scored [from the field] yet? You know, Oklahoma's in trouble. They're up 12, but they're in trouble because Angel hasn't scored yet."
McCoughtry scored enough in the second half to led all players with 18 points. She also hauled down 11 boards, blocked two shots, and snatched five steals over the course of the game.
Candyce Bingham finished right behind McCoughtry with 14 points, four boards, four assists and a steal. Becky Burke came off the bench to chip in nine points, including two treys.
|Oklahoma's Ashley Paris, right, and Louisville's Candyce Bingham reach for a rebound in the first half in a semifinal of the NCAA women's college basketball tournament Final Four on Sunday, April 5, 2009, in St. Louis. |
Four Sooners finished in double figures, but in the end, it was just not enough. Courtney Paris notched yet another double-double, with 16 points and the same number of boards; she also swatted down four blocked shots. Sister Ashley was hot on her heels with 14 points, eight boards and a block, but four turnovers. Whitney Hand contributed 11 points, including three treys, in addition to hauling down five boards, dishing three assists, and grabbing three steals. Hand also handled the most difficult defensive assignment, against McCoughtry, for much of the night. Stevenson contributed 10 points, and then there was that trey that might have been.
In the first half, Oklahoma dominated from tip-off. Senior forward Ashley Paris led the charge with 10 points on five-of-five shooting, while freshman guard Whitney Hand sank her three long-balls and junior forward Nyeshia Stevenson added seven points. Unlike their opponents, the Sooners shot 42.4 percent for the first half and 26.9 for the second.
Senior center Courtney Paris acknowledged that Louisville “had much more energy than we did” in the final period.
Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale agreed, noting that the Cardinals began playing much more physicalikt in the second half, and were able to shut down Hand, who scored only two free throws in the period.
"We were flat, didn't play with a lot of life, didn't have a lot of energy, got beat on the boards," said Coale. Her team became “panicky with the basketball,” she added, because of their opponents' relentlessness on both ends of the floor.
“They just swung and swung and swung, and we didn’t swing back,” Coale said.
|Oklahoma's Whitney Hand (25) is hounded by Louisville's Angel McCoughtry (35) and Keshia Hines, right, during the second half in a semifinal of the NCAA women's college basketball tournament Final Four on Sunday, April 5, 2009, in St. Louis. The Oklahoma players, who led at the half by 12 points, were stunned by Louisville's energy and physicality in the second.|
Even so, the Sooners had a chance to win the game in the last five seconds of play. After Bingham made one free throw, Stevenson took the ball up court. Oklahoma only needed a two to send the game to overtime, but Stevenson pulled up for a three-pointer, which hit the rim, seemed ready to drop, but then bounced off.
Coale said she was surprised by the decision to take the shot, because she thought Stevenson had had time to take the ball all the way to the rim, but credited her four having the courage to take the open three and try instead for the win.
"I loved the fact that she thought she she could stick her feet and win the game. From my vantage point, boy, the line was sure true!" said Coale.
|Oklahoma's Ashley Paris, left, comforts Nyeshia Stevenson (1) after Stevenson's potential game-winning shot rattled out of the basket in the final seconds of Oklahoma's 61-59 loss to Louisville in a semifinal of the NCAA women's college basketball tournament Final Four on Sunday, April 5, 2009, in St. Louis. |
No one had the heart in the aftermath to ask Courtney Paris whether she intended to make good on her promise to repay her scholarship if the Sooners did not win the national title. But Paris said she thought Stevenson had made a "great shot" and agreed that it was "really courageous of her to be willing to take that big shot....It just didn't go in." Her sister Ashley went out of her way to console Stevenson after the loss.
Louisville, which came on strong in the post-season and surprised many last week by defeating Maryland in the quarterfinals, has been called a “Cinderella team.” Players said this motivated them.
“Nobody believed in us, so that makes it even better,” Bingham said.
Still, the Cardinal’s next task is daunting. Not only are they playing for a National Championship for the first time in school history, they’re playing 38-0 Connecticut –- the winners of Sunday’s other Final Four matchup -- and whose last loss was in the 2008 Final Four.
Louisville has already played the Huskies twice this year, the last time losing to them by 39 points. Still, Cardinals players say they’re not intimidated.
“We’re going to go out and play like it’s any other game,” Bingham said.
Game time is 6:30 p.m. CDT, Tuesday.