April 4, 2009
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Louisville versus Oklahoma feels like the consolation game of the Women's Final Four.
Good reason. Both semifinalists have been drubbed by top-ranked Connecticut. Twice in the Cardinals' case.
Louisville coach Jeff Walz, whose team lost by 28 and 39 points, joked that it was all part of the plan to lull the unbeaten Huskies into a false sense of security. Of course, the Cardinals first have to win the opener on Sunday night and then Connecticut (37-0) would have to get past Stanford (33-4) in the second semifinal.
"I think we did a great job," Walz said. "Obviously, if we play them they're way overconfident."
Oklahoma's Sherri Coale, on the wrong end of a 28-point blowout at Storrs, Conn., in late November, bristled a bit at the notion that it's the Huskies' tournament to lose.
"I think it's a great Final Four," Coale said. "I think it's a fans' paradise, and I think there will be two really good games on Sunday, and another really good one on Tuesday."
Led by double-double machine Courtney Paris, Oklahoma (32-4) is a legitimate title contender heading into its first-ever meeting against Louisville. Coale prepped the Big 12 champions for their second Final Four appearance with a visit to the city in late December.
Although the Sooners' victory over Saint Louis came at a different arena, Coale thought it helped set the tone for the expectations. Oklahoma played in San Antonio before its runner-up finish in the 2002 Final Four.
"We thought it was important to try to go to the Final Four city, to plant some seeds, to have the experience," Coale said. "It sort of crystallizes things and makes it a little bit more real."
With the toughest schedule in the nation, Oklahoma had a dominating player to lead the way in the 6-foot-4 Paris, the school's first four-time AP All-American. She has 127 career double-doubles, including a streak of 112 straight that was snapped this season. Her lesser-celebrated twin, Ashley Paris, averages close to a double-double.
"I feel like most of the world plays in Courtney's shadow," Ashley Paris said. "It's not just me.
"But I enjoy it, I signed up for it."
Courtney Paris certainly does not lack for confidence, promising on Senior Night to pay back the $75,000-plus cost of her four-year scholarship if Oklahoma doesn't win the national title.
"It was about motivating them, letting them know I 100 percent believe in them," Paris said. "It's not something I would say to a team I didn't think could do it already."
Louisville is likely to double-team Courtney Paris. Walz said he'd "throw a lot of players at her."
The Sooners have balance, too, with driving point guard Danielle Robinson averaging 13.1 points, and Whitney Hand and Nyeshia Stevenson presenting threats from 3-point range. They also have celebrity on their side, with former NFL All-Pro lineman Bubba Paris cheering his daughters from the stands and Carlee Roethlisberger, the sister of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, as a reserve.
Louisville (33-4) is making its first Final Four appearance, carrying the school banner after the overall top-seeded men's team was upset by Michigan State one game shy of the Final Four. All-American Angel McCoughtry averages 23.2 points and 9.3 rebounds for a school that appears to be ahead of schedule under Walz, an assistant on Maryland's championship team two years ago.
McCoughtry had a big game in the Cardinals' upset of top seeded Maryland in the Raleigh Regional final, and has an outspoken personality to match. She dished out the one-liners during Saturday's pregame news conference, noting that the other three Final Four teams had homecourt advantage earlier in the tournament while Louisville was "at LSU somewhere with the alligators."
McCoughtry also noted the lack of respect Louisville, which entered the tournament as a No. 3 seed, gets on a TV commercial promoting the Final Four.
"The commercial strictly says Oklahoma is on a mission to win a championship, but Louisville is trying to fool with that," McCoughtry said. "I think that does fuel our fire."
Walz has quickly put Louisville on the map, guiding the school to its first Sweet 16 appearance last season.
"I never thought this would happen," said Candyce Bingham, the second-leading scorer at 12.5 points. "It's an amazing thing to be a part of this."
Whatever happens after Sunday can wait. For both schools.