McCoughtry brings respectability to Louisville
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -When Angel McCoughtry told people she was going to play basketball at Louisville she usually got a one-word response.
At a program that had never been ranked, never made it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament and was moving from the comfy confines of Conference USA into the gantlet known as the Big East?
Her answer: Yeah, that one.
"I wasn't looking at the now, and everybody else was looking at the now,'' McCoughtry said. "I was looking at the whole picture. I was looking at the future and I was like, 'You know what, maybe right now we might not be anybody. But we're going to be somebody. Just you watch.'''
Four years later, the only question is where athletic director Tom Jurich is going to put the statue of the greatest player in the program's history, one who helped make women's basketball matter in a state where the men's game has been religion for decades.
"I've said it a million times in speeches, it's going up,'' Jurich said. "I'm not sure where, but it's going up. She's been a real pioneer for our program and what we're trying to accomplish.''
McCoughtry almost blushes when asked about the statue. It's a little much. Though if Jurich must do it, she has just one request.
"I have to look pretty,'' she says, trying stifle a laugh.
While McCoughtry doesn't care what pose is chosen to preserve her for posterity, coach Jeff Walz has a suggestion.
"It's got to show her passion,'' he said. "That's the thing that really sets her apart. She's all about winning and she's all about doing whatever it takes to make herself and her teammates better.''
The sculptors shouldn't lack for inspiration. McCoughtry has evolved from a raw, somewhat undisciplined talent into arguably the best all-around player in the country.
This season she's helped a team that lost center Chauntise Wright to a knee injury in October, anchoring No. 8 Louisville's spot in the Top 10 and almost assuring the Cardinals (25-3, 12-2 Big East) of a high seed when the NCAA tournament begins in three weeks.
McCoughtry leads the Big East in scoring (23.4 ppg), is third in rebounding (9.3), and is tops in the nation in steals (4.9) and "did you see that?'' plays.
"If Angel is not one of the players of the year it will be a shame,'' Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "The way she has played, the impact she has had on the league. You spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for her on both ends when you play them.''
McCoughtry's play has helped put the Cardinals on the map nationally, to the point where coaches in opposing conferences have sat up and taken notice.
"A player like that takes pressure off of other players and allows them to play with greater confidence because she has confidence,'' Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "They know that she's going to bring it every game. Then when she's the target, they reap the benefits of getting the basketball. I've been impressed with that program and what they've been able to do there.''
Yet for all the remarkable things the senior has done on the court - winning Big East Player of the Year as a sophomore, becoming Louisville's first second-team All-American, leading the Cardinals deep into the NCAA tournament while helping them crack the polls for the first time in the program's history - her biggest contribution may be what she's done off it.
In a state where men's basketball is king and winning a national title means you never have to pay for a dinner again, McCoughtry has helped the women's game step out of the shadows.
Attendance for home games at Freedom Hall has more than tripled during her career, from around 1,700 the year before she arrived to almost 6,600 this season.
Her No. 35 jersey is one of the most popular of any current Louisville player in any sport, male or female. A handful of billboards are scattered throughout the city featuring McCoughtry with arms extended, a ball gripped comfortably in each hand and the phrase "Angel's Back'' splashed across the front.
"She's become a true icon,'' Jurich said.
One that has turned women's basketball into a must-see event.
Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum, mayor Jerry Abramson and men's team captain Terrence Williams - a good friend and like McCoughtry an athletic freak who has brought leadership and star power to his team - are among the regulars.
And McCoughtry counts Louisville legend Darrell Griffith, the school's career leading scorer until McCoughtry broke his points record earlier this year, among her friends.
So are hundreds of young girls - and more than a few guys - who bombard McCoughtry after games asking for an autograph, a high-five or a picture. It's not just the locals who have been taken by McCoughtry's infectious personality. A small stack of letters rests on a desk just inside the door to Walz's office, most of them from opposing fans who have been won over while watching McCoughtry do her thing.
"She's bubbly, kids love her, parents enjoy when their kids are around her,'' Walz said. "It's not just about how many points a kid scores, but it's how she interacts with the youth that comes to her games and the adults too.''
She has evolved from a project into a star and an ambassador for the game and the university. It's a title she cherishes.
"I love it because I know in the blink of an eye it can all go away, so I want to enjoy it while it's here,'' she said. "It's just amazing because when I was young I wanted that person I could look up to. And for (my fans) to have that, I want to be the best role model I can be.''
It's heady territory for a player who was considered a little too immature coming out of St. Francis Academy in Baltimore, even by the coach who has helped elevate her game.
Walz saw the potential while serving as an assistant at Maryland during McCoughtry's high school career. What he didn't see was the work ethic required to smooth out the rough edges.
"We always thought, even at Maryland, that if she really dedicated herself, she could be good,'' said Walz, who took over the program after Tom Collen left for Arkansas two years ago. "Do we think she could be this good? Probably not.''
Nobody did, except maybe for McCoughtry.
With a sheepish grin she admits to keeping a running tab of schools like Maryland that passed her over. She's spent most of the last four years trying to pay them back.
She's kidding. Mostly. McCoughtry knows the snubs she received coming out of high school helped fuel the development that has led to her success and a likely top-five selection in next month's WNBA draft.
"I'm not going to let anybody tell me I can't do this or I can't do that,'' she said. "It makes me proud that coaches who didn't look at me in high school say 'We wish we would have looked at you twice.'''
While McCoughtry would have loved to have played at a Connecticut or a Tennessee, she knows she would have been just another cog in the machine at such schools.
At Louisville, she's the biggest part of a foundation set by former stars like Jazz Covington and Sara Nord, great players who toiled in anonymity.
Not anymore. Hopefully, not ever again.
McCoughtry sees her legacy as more than just four brilliant seasons, but the jumping off point for a program she thinks will have no trouble nipping at Connecticut's heels long after her brown-and-black braids have moved on to the pros.
"This is just the start,'' she said. "Coach is really building something here. Louisville is not going away.''
Just like she predicted four years ago, even if reality has surpassed her own remarkably high expectations.
"That's why I always try to encourage girls and say you can go somewhere and establish your own (identity),'' she said. "I think a lot of girls don't realize they can do that. I think before that's why everyone is going to UConn or Tennessee, but it's so spread out now. You can go somewhere else and make your mark.''
Associated Press Writer Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.
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