Big East Rivals Connecticut and Louisville Reach NCAA Title Game

By Mel Greenberg

Connecticut wasted another powerhouse women’s basketball program Sunday night, romping over Stanford 83-64 in the NCAA basketball semifinals at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

The victory over the Cardinal (33-5) leaves the Huskies (38-0) one win from earning a sixth national title and finishing with a perfect record for the third time in the team’s history.

“I can’t say enough about the defensive efforts these kids put forth tonight,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said and then nodded in the direction of sophomore Maya Moore and senior point guard Renee Montgomery. “And these two right here were just unbelievable, and they were just determined to play one more game.”

Connecticut’s foe Tuesday night will create a repeat of the Big East championship when the Huskies meet conference rival Louisville (34-4), a team it also demolished during the regular season.

Thus, the Big East women succeeded where the men’s teams of the prominent conference failed in national semifinals competition.

Connecticut and Villanova were both eliminated Saturday night in Detroit

Another Big East women’s coach will be in the national news Monday morning when longtime Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer is announced in Detroit as one of the 2009 individuals who will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in September.

Louisville, whose men’s team failed to gain a Final Four berth, actually produced the more stunning performance of Sunday night when the Cardinals shook off a 16-2 deficit in the first game and rallied to beat Oklahoma, 61-59.

The outcome over the Sooners (32-5) was not determined until the final moments when Oklahoma’s Nyeshia Stevenson’s long three-point attempt bounced off the basket.

In Connecticut’s game, Montgomery put on a show with 26 points, four steals, and six assists.

Moore, who has swept all national player awards to date, scored 24 points, while Tiffany Hayes added 11 points, highlighted by a 3-for-5 effort on three point attempts. Kalana Greene was the fourth Huskies star scoring in double figures with 10 points, while junior center Tina Charles grabbed 12 rebounds.

Stanford’s Jayne Appel scored 26 points, while Nnemkadi Ogwumike had 13 points and 12 rebounds, and Kaya Pederson had 10 points.

It was the Cardinal’s worst loss this season, a misery shared by most of Connecticut’s foes.
Indeed the Huskies need one more double-digit win to become the first men’s or women’s team in NCAA history to finish unbeaten and win every game by at least 10 points.

Rutgers and Notre Dame in Big East competition were the only two teams to come that close.
Stanford took a brief 14-13 lead near the midpoint of the first half before Montgomery hit a trey to put the Huskies ahead to stay.

They bolted from a 37-24 halftime lead going on a 13-0 run at the start of the second half that sealed Stanford’s doom after the Cardinal had won 20 straight games.

The win was Connecticut’s third straight over Pac-10 conference teams dating to last weekend’s triumphs over California and Arizona State in the Trenton regional.

“Their whole team, they stepped up and made plays that they had to make, and they don’t make a lot of mistakes,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “They don’t take bad shots. They play within the flow of the game and they play with a purpose.”

A year ago, Connecticut was dispatched by Stanford in the national semifinals before the Cardinal lost to Tennessee in the championship game in Tampa, Fla.

“It feels good to make progress,” Moore said. “And I feel our whole team is better, and we were more prepared this year to compete against Stanford.”

The opener Sunday night was supposed to bring Oklahoma’s senior twin sisters post combination of Courtney Paris and Ashley one step closer to making good on Courtney’s guarantee of a national title or else she promised to return her scholarship money.

And it seemed the task would be easy when Louisville missed its first 13 shots from the field.

Furthermore Cardinals senior Angel McCoughtry, projected to go first in the WNBA draft on Thursday, was 0-for-7 from the field in the first half, scoring just four points on the foul line.

“I told Angel she was awful,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of his halftime talk when his team trailed, 34-22. “That was the worst I’ve seen her play. That’s the way we roll at Louisville. We speak the truth, She was terrible in the first half. She came out in the second half and played like an All-American.”

The native of Baltimore finished with 18 rebounds. Candyce Bingham scored 14 points for the Cardinals, and Keshia Hines had 10 points.

McCoughtry talked about her sp;lit performances in the two halves.

“Sometimes you have bad games,” she said. “It proves that you are human. I am human. The thing is not to get down on yourself. Keep playing for the team.”

Walz thought things could have been worse at the half and felt his team had a chance to rally.

“I felt good about things because when we got (Oklahoma) in the halfcourt, we actually guarded them,” he said. “The problem was their transition game was killing us.”

Louisville began to creep back into contention and McCoughtry’s jumper with 14:59 left in the game snapped a 35-35 tie for the Cardinals’ first lead.

“I just felt like they came out with a lot more energy,” Courtney Paris said. “And we were relaxed. And I don’t know, we just didn’t execute as we should have.”

The score stayed close and she snapped another tie at 44-42 with a jumper with 8:30 left.

Louisville managed to stay competitive despite having four players each reach four personal fouls as the game neared the end.

Another McCoughtry jumper snapped a 50-50 tie with 5:13 left and a pair of three-pointers by Becky Burke helped propel to a six-point lead with 3:31 left.

“We got a little tentative, and then got a little panicky with the basketball a couple of times,” Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. “Still, all that being said, we survived and we tie it up, get it back to a one-possession game and have a chance to win it in the end.”

Courtney Paris’ layup with eight seconds left brought the Sooners within a point at 60-59 with eight seconds left but Bingham went to the line a second later.

She missed the second foul shot attempt, however, and Oklahoma was able to get the ball down the floor into Stevenson’s hands for the failed attempt at the finish.

“I thought it was a great shot,” Courtney said of the final seconds as her collegiate career came to a close. “Rim to rim and it came out. I thought it was really courageous of her to be willing to take that big shot. And it just didn’t go in.”

Courtney Paris finished with 16 points and 16 rebounds, while Ashley had 14 points. Whitney Hand had 11 points and Stevenson scored 10 points.

- Mel