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Posted: Wednesday March 18, 2009 11:27AM; Updated: Monday April 6, 2009 9:07AM
Kelli Anderson Kelli Anderson >

Heaven Sent

No player in the nation does as much for her team as Louisville forward Angel McCoughtry, who has driven everyone from teammates to administrators to make the program a force

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UConn's Maya Moore (left) outplayed Angel McCoughtry in early March, but they meet again in St. Louis.
Jessica Hill/AP

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich hasn't decided yet where he'll put the statue of Angel McCoughtry, the Cardinals' 6' 1" senior All-America forward. Should it go outside the new 22,000-seat Downtown Arena, due to open in November 2010? Or somewhere on campus? Perhaps a prominent spot among the array of facilities at the Cardinal Park sports complex? As he ponders this, Jurich sits in Freedom Hall, calling out greetings as a parade of wealthy and well-connected locals file into his suite to eat, drink and hobnob before the Cardinals women paste Pittsburgh 75-51 on Senior Day. "I want to make sure Angel is properly remembered around here as an icon, as a true pioneer," he says.

It's likely that the 11,355 fans -- including Mayor Jerry Abramson and his wife, Madeline, courtside patrons for the last four years -- who have shown up appropriately dressed for today's white-out game will remember McCoughtry whether she's immortalized in bronze or not. It's unlikely that any player anywhere does as much for her team as McCoughtry does for the seventh-ranked Cardinals, who will carry a program-best 29-4 record and No. 3 seed into the NCAA tournament. With her relentless competitiveness ("On a scale of one to 10, I'm a 50," she says) and her ability to make things happen at both ends of the floor, McCoughtry averages 23.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and a nation's-best 4.6 steals a game. She is the only player in Big East history to lead the conference in all three categories for three consecutive years. "You have to run your offense away from her because she makes so many defensive plays and she's such a passionate rebounder," says DePaul coach Doug Bruno. "Even if she's having a tough offensive game, she's still going to get 10 points off steals and another six on putbacks. She'll have 16 or 18 points before she even gets her offensive stuff cooking."

On Jan. 31, McCoughtry became the most prolific scorer in Louisville history, blowing by the mark of 2,333 points set by Cardinals legend Darrell Griffith, who coincidentally wore the same number, 35.

"I was elated for her," says Griffith, who is now both a special assistant to university president James Ramsey and an avid Cardinals women's basketball fan. "You couldn't write a better story than having a female number 35 break the record."

Yet there is much more to the Cardinals' story. The milestones, the teeming crowds, the ascendance of a women's program that even men's coach Rick Pitino brags about on his weekly radio show: "That all took a village," says senior associate athletic director Julie Hermann. But none of it might have happened had McCoughtry and Jurich not brought to Louisville -- a school McCoughtry hadn't heard of four years ago -- their forward thinking and their stubborn persistence. "Tom and Angel are two people who both think, If I can dream it, I can do it, and I'm not interested in any counter-opinions to that," says Hermann. This is a story of two people who won't take no for an answer.

When jurich arrived in Louisville from Colorado State in 1997, he was determined to make a first-rate, comprehensive athletic department out of what was, he says, "essentially just a men's basketball program." At the time, that program, along with women's volleyball, was under NCAA investigation for accusations of recruiting misdeeds and a lack of institutional control. (The basketball team escaped major sanctions.) Women's athletics in general was a Title IX lawsuit waiting to happen. Only two women's coaches -- for basketball and volleyball -- were full-time employees. Gender proportionality was perilously out of whack (at the time women made up 52% of the student body but only 33% of the athletes), and the facilities, says now retired Title IX consultant Lamar Daniel, "were about as poor as existed in the NCAA."

Rather than cut men's sports, as many programs around the country have done, Jurich added three women's sports -- golf, softball and rowing -- right away and a fourth, lacrosse, in 2008. Ignoring the squawking of some old-guard boosters, Jurich embarked on a flurry of fund-raising, building and refurbishing that, by the time the state-owned Downtown Arena opens next year, will provide each of Louisville's 21 sports with state-of-the-art facilities to go with their championship expectations. (In all, $135 million in capital improvements will have been made when the work is done.) Jurich's plans for women's basketball, a program that had been good at times but never great, struck some donors as ludicrous. In his second year Jurich moved the women from Cardinal Arena, where they rarely filled the 1,300 bleacher seats, to 19,000-seat Freedom Hall, which the men packed for every game. "Some people called it a waste of money," says Jurich, "but even if only 50 people were showing up, playing there means something in this community."

To fill seats Hermann started networking among the city's most powerful women, whether they were sports fans or not, drawing them to games with the promise of wine and cheese receptions and courtside seats. "It turns out a lot of those women have powerful husbands, and they started coming, too," says Hermann. "People got hooked. Now women's basketball is a place to see and be seen."

During McCoughtry's career, attendance has more than tripled. The year before she arrived, home attendance averaged 1,774; this year it was 7,111, 12th in the nation. And if every last one of those fans had wanted an autograph after a game, McCoughtry would've made it happen. "I want to give everyone time even if it takes all night," she says. "It took me awhile to realize it, but I affect lives."

Until a few years ago McCoughtry would have been a long shot for program poster girl. That she had talent was indisputable, but she also had a stubborn streak that had often reduced her mom, Sharon, to tears when Angel was a toddler. Even Angel's imposing 6' 5" father, Roi, a self-described "tough dad" who played forward for Coppin State in the late 1970s, couldn't always withstand her will. When Angel, then 16, asked Roi one day if she could play on his men's team at the Baltimore church where he has served as pastor for the last 13 years, he said no. "These were grown men, and I didn't want her to get hurt," says Roi. "But this being Angel, that wasn't the end of it. It was, 'Dad, can I play?' No. 'Dad, can I play?' No. 'Dad, can I play?' " Roi sighs at the memory. "I let her play. She scored, she rebounded, she blocked shots, she even stole the ball from me," he says. "That's when I first realized how good she was."

As a senior at St. Francis High, McCoughtry was named Baltimore's metro player of the year, and she signed with St. John's. But when a low SAT score diverted her to the Patterson School in Lenoir, N.C., for a year, she reopened her recruiting. Florida State was interested, as was a school she couldn't place, Louisville. She took a visit to the Derby City only as an excuse to get off Patterson's campus. But quite unexpectedly, she says, "I got this intuition that this is where I needed to be."

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