Wearing No. 35, a University of Louisville basketball superstar caps off a brilliant, record-setting collegiate career by leading the Cardinals to new heights in the NCAA tournament.
During the UofL women’s historic 2008–09 basketball season, which ended April 7 in the NCAA Finals, comparisons between senior three-time All-American Angel McCoughtry and Cardinal legend Darrell Griffith were discussed by fans and covered in the local media.
First, there was the number—35. And then, of course, there were the numbers. McCoughtry surpassed Griffith’s 2,333 career points to become the all-time scoring leader in Cardinal basketball history. She’s also the women’s all-time leader in rebounds, steals, free throws and field goals.
But the parallel between the two was not complete until the women’s team upset the University of Maryland in the NCAA Elite Eight to earn the program’s first trip to the Final Four. It was at that point that Angel—like “Dr. Dunkenstein” before her—took her team higher than it had ever soared.
In his 1980 senior season, Griffith guided the men’s team to the school’s first NCAA National Championship. This year, McCoughtry led the women’s program to its first Final Four in school history, winning a school-record 34 games along the way.
Led by McCoughtry and fellow senior Candyce Bingham and the game plans of second-year coach Jeff Walz, the Cards’ tournament run was nothing short of magical. After getting a disappointing No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament draw, the 7th-ranked Cards embraced the role of underdog and played with a dramatic sense of having something to prove. They beat Liberty and host LSU in the first two rounds of the tournament, then No. 2 seed Baylor and No. 1 Maryland to reach the Final Four at Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
They weren’t finished.
Overcoming a very shaky start in the national semi-final game—even going down 16–2—the Cardinals staged a frantic early second half comeback to overtake another No. 1 seed Oklahoma and eventually win 61–59.
That earned them a matchup with their third consecutive No. 1 seed in Big East rival Connecticut—a team that whipped them twice earlier in the season—for the national championship. The Huskies, who finished the season 39–0 and were the nation’s top-ranked team all season, were too much for the Cardinals, winning the title game 76–54.
“They’re a great team,” McCoughtry said after the game. “I think to beat them you have to play a perfect game, and unfortunately we didn’t do that.
“We don’t have anything to feel ashamed of. We have been making history all year. We did something special.”
Griffith, who now works for UofL as special assistant to the president, was one of the team’s biggest fans.
“My niece played for the women’s team back when I was at UofL,” recalled Griffith, shortly before leaving for St. Louis to watch the women play in the Final Four. “To see all the excitement surrounding the program and how far it has come over the years has been phenomenal.”
Griffith remembered how he felt heading into his senior year at UofL. “I had made a commitment when I came here to bring a championship to this city and to this university. I had just one year left.
“So I did everything I could to be the best player I could be and leave it all out on the court. Fortunately, it worked out for us.”
McCoughtry had made a similar commitment going into her senior year. She wanted her team to make history. She wanted her team to make it to the Final Four. They almost surpassed even her goals by winning the whole thing.
“Nobody expected us to do this,” McCoughtry said after the Oklahoma game. “We don’t have one high school All-American on this team.”
Who needs a high school All-American when you’re flying on the wings of an Angel?
Going into the 2008-09 men’s college basketball season, the Big East was being touted in the media and by coaches, players and fans as perhaps the most deeply talented conference in the history of college basketball.
“It’s great for the fans,” joked University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino at the time. “It’s not so great for the coaches.”
Led by senior co-captains Terrence Williams and Andre McGee, the Cards (31-6) were more than up for the test, taking UofL fans on a wild ride while winning the university’s first Big East regular-season (16-2) and tournament championships.
In February and March, the team reeled off 13 straight victories—their longest streak since reaching the 2005 Final Four—and ascended to the first No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 in school history. It was the season’s final regular-season poll and the Cards entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. But like the previous season, the team’s Final Four dreams fell one game short. After knocking off Morehead State, Siena and Arizona in the first three rounds, the Cards went down to eventual national runner-up Michigan State 64–52 in the Elite Eight at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis. It was the Cards’ third Elite Eight appearance in five seasons. Pitino admits he didn’t expect the Cards to post a 16-2 record in the rugged Big East and win the league tournament.
“It took an incredible amount of hard work and extraordinary effort to do what we did,” Pitino said. “I think I’ll look back and say this was one of the most overachieving teams I’ve ever coached.”