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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."
Her first year was a struggle. She was late to meetings, slept through workouts, argued with refs, shot just 55% from the free throw line and regularly tested the patience of then coach Tom Collen. McCoughtry didn't mask her emotions, slumping her shoulders and hanging her head when things didn't go her way. "I wanted to transfer, and I'm sure Coach Collen wanted me to, too," she says. (Indeed, Collen told her he had a one-way ticket back to Baltimore on his desk.) During one game the coach's frustrations with her exploded. "I hadn't made a shot outside the paint all night," she recalls. "Coach said, 'I don't want you shooting, you can't shoot! Just rebound!'"
But rather than cow her, the words inspired McCoughtry. "I thought, No one is going to tell me I can't do something ever again," she says. That summer she took 500 shots a day to develop her jumper and improve her scoring around the basket. And as a sophomore she flourished offensively, averaging 21.5 points (including 72% from the free throw line), 10.3 rebounds and 3.2 steals as Louisville went 26--8 and cracked the Top 25 for the first time in school history. McCoughtry earned Big East Player of the Year and All-America honors from the women's coaches association, both firsts for the program. "She was a good, solid freshman, but you never would have predicted that the next year she would be in contention for national player of the year," says DePaul's Bruno. "It was one of the greatest transformations I've seen in my life in coaching. It was like watching a different player."
McCoughtry wasn't finished. That spring Collen left to coach Arkansas, and he was replaced by Maryland assistant Jeff Walz, a Kentucky native whose friendly demeanor belies a passionate, demanding style that reminded Jurich of Pitino's. One of the first things Walz did was show McCoughtry a video of her negative body language. "I was shocked," says McCoughtry. "Is this really how I look? Is this what everyone has been talking about? I had to change that and channel my energy in a more positive way."
As last year's team went 21--10 and reached the Sweet 16, McCoughtry felt a new sense of purpose. She embraced her role as team leader and face of the program, spending hours signing autographs and responding to the fan mail she gets every week. In December she started writing a book aimed at helping young girls overcome their obstacles. "I want those girls to look at my story and see that they can change," she says.
Moreover, McCoughtry started channeling Jurich, urging Hermann to further push the envelope for the program. When McCoughtry learned that 8,000 of the 19,123 fans who squeezed into Freedom Hall for last year's Connecticut game got in for free, she challenged Hermann to do better. "She said, 'Miss Hermann, I want sold-out attendance, paid, at Freedom Hall, and I'll help you do it,'" recalls Hermann. With every player, coach, friend and relative serving as ticket brokers, 16,337 people showed up for the Kentucky game this past Dec. 14. A month later 15,323 saw the Rutgers game. Nearly everyone at both games paid admission.
McCoughtry also persuaded Hermann to get her number 35 jersey onto shelves at local stores—a first for a female player at Louisville—with the promise that she would make sure they sold out. (Only a handful of the original 300 are still available, to be used for a fund-raising auction.) "Not only is she willing to hold the grown-ups accountable, she understands her end of the bargain," says Hermann. "That is to sign autographs, to make appearances, to carry herself in a way in which no one ever says, 'I don't want to support that.'"
Part of that bargain is also to win games, and McCoughtry doesn't do that by herself. Fellow senior Candyce Bingham, a 6'1" forward, contributes 12.3 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, as well as a lagoonlike calm that nicely balances McCoughtry's on-court fire, while 5'9" sophomore Desereé Byrd adds 7.6 points and 5.2 assists at point guard, a position she never played before this year. But without 6'3" senior center Chauntise Wright, who is sitting out the season after tearing her right ACL in October, the Cards are undersized (no starter is taller than 6'1"), and with just two upperclassmen, they are young. "Our margin of error is very thin," says Walz. "Connecticut may be able to have a bad game and still win; we can't." (That point was driven home when the Huskies routed Louisville 75--36 in the Big East conference title game on March 10.)
Whatever happens in this tournament, Collen, for one, sees big things ahead for McCoughtry. "I am more proud of her as a person than a player," he says. "And I've told every WNBA coach who has called me that they would be crazy not to take her [in the draft]." McCoughtry also sees big things ahead for Louisville, including national titles. "When Candyce and I leave, it's not the end of an era, it's just the beginning," she says. "I want this program to be the caliber of Tennessee and UConn, and I want Coach Walz to make the Hall of Fame."
Miss Hermann will get on that right away.