March 23, 2009

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisville head coach Jeff Walz tried not to sound too bitter about having to play a virtual road game at lower-seeded LSU in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

"We're 30-4 right now," Walz began. "Our goal next year might be to get to 32-2 and hopefully play on a neutral site. But at 30-4 we're coming in here playing on their home court in a big game that we're going to have to be prepared to play."

This may be Louisville's best team ever. No previous women's team in school history won 30 games, or even 28 for that matter.

The Cardinals, seeded third in the Raleigh regional, have one of the brightest stars of the women's college game in senior Angel McCoughtry, who led the Big East in scoring, rebounds and steals this season. So complete is her game that she set Louisville's single-game scoring record of 43 points this season and then went on to be named Big East defensive player of the year.

LSU coach Van Chancellor predicted McCoughtry will be the top overall pick in the next WNBA draft. But for McCoughtry to make what would be her first and only trip to a Final Four, she and Louisville will have to beat sixth-seeded LSU right here in Baton Rouge, with the overwhelming majority of fans in the stands wearing purple and gold.

The tournament sites are selected well in advance and if a host school qualifies, it is automatically assigned to play at home.

"It's just the way it is. There's really nothing we can do about it," Walz said. "Until our game continues to grow and we can prove that we can sustain a tournament at a neutral site like the men can, this is just something that has to be done.

"We'd love to be playing on a neutral floor," Walz continued. "We had some pretty tough road games, so this is not going to be a big shock for us to play in front of 6,000 fans that aren't cheering for you."

Louisville's impressive road victories this season include a 23-point win at Middle Tennessee - a team that beat LSU in Baton Rouge. The Cardinals also won at Utah, Notre Dame and Xavier.

After LSU (19-10) won its first-round game over Wisconsin-Green Bay on Sunday night, Chancellor took a seat near the court and watched Louisville dismantle Liberty.

Chancellor said he'd been following Louisville for a while and considers the Cardinals a Final Four contender, far better than his own squad, which had him wondering earlier this season if it would even be playing this late in March.

Last season, LSU reached its fifth straight final four, then said goodbye to eight seniors, including all five starters. The Lady Tigers opened this season 1-3, but steadily improved, finishing with wins in six of their last seven games heading into the tournament.

"Reaching the final 32 is almost as good as reaching the Final Four last year," Chancellor said. "At one time this season we thought we'd be out playing golf today."

The main reason LSU won comfortably against Green Bay was Allison Hightower's career-high 26 points. She scored 20 in the first half alone, staking LSU to a double-digit lead before cramps and dehydration limited her down the stretch.

"She could easily be a first-teamer in the Big East because of the way she plays. She can get up and down the floor, make those short jumpers," McCoughtry said. "We've just got to find a way to stop her because she's the key to their basketball team."

Of course, LSU is likewise worried about McCoughtry.

"This kid's going to have a great game," Chancellor said. "We just have to find some way that she doesn't have 45 points, kind of keep her close to her average" of 23.5.

Walz, who's known Chancellor for years and is well aware that LSU often won on the strength of its Southeastern Conference-leading defense, grinned when he heard about that comment.

"He's got a good sense of humor and there's no question they'll have a game plan to try and stop" McCoughtry, Walz said. "For a team that gives up 53 points a game, I really don't believe he's too concerned about one kid trying to score 45 on him."

But Chancellor is genuinely concerned about Louisville's depth and the fact that unlike his squad, the Cardinals are well-rested. McCoughtry played only 25 minutes against Liberty, scoring 12 points. Candyce Bingham, Louisville's second-leading scorer and rebounder, played only 26 minutes. Louisville's pressing defense did the rest, converting 27 turnovers into 29 points.

"That's part of the plan" against LSU, Bingham said, "putting the pressure on and getting them to do things that they're not feeling comfortable doing."

Chancellor said he's been worried about Louisville ever since the brackets were released, adding that the fact that Louisville beat several teams that defeated LSU - such as Notre Dame, Xavier and Middle Tennessee - "scares me to death."

Walz, however, said he puts no stock in results against common opponents.

"If Van was willing to say, 'Hey, you won at Middle by 23, we lost to them. There's no sense to play,' I'm all for it. But I've got a feeling he's not going to do that," Walz said. "This time of year, it's not about who's seeded where. It's about who plays the best game on one single night."