Louisville's Angel McCoughtry is more than ready for her close-up.
The 6-foot-1 junior forward has somehow managed to slip under the women's basketball radar despite leading the nation in scoring and steals, as well as getting one of the season's first triple doubles.
But as McCoughtry, The Sun's 2003 girls Player of the Year at St. Frances, brings her Cardinals team to her hometown for a game at Coppin State (4-7) today, she's starting to notice the attention on her, and she likes it.
"Now, people are saying this year, `Yeah, we've got to watch that girl from Louisville,' " McCoughtry said last week. "[The attention] is really good. It helps a lot. Now, we're going to see how good we can be."
The Cardinals (8-2), picked to finish sixth this season in the Big East, appear to be on target to build on last year, the best season in the program's history, when Louisville went 27-8 and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament.
To take the next step, they'll probably need an even better season from McCoughtry than last season, when she led the Big East in scoring, rebounding and steals on the way to becoming the conference Player of the Year. In addition, she became the first native Baltimorean to be named to the Women's Basketball Coaches Association's 10-player All-America team in its 33-year history.
Having those achievements on her resume while playing in a conference dominated by five-time national champion Connecticut and Rutgers, which advanced to the national championship game last season, reinforces how little attention McCoughtry, a three-time All-Metro player at St. Frances, has received.
"She was putting up some great numbers and having great games, but I don't think anybody realized what a special year she had until it was over," said Louisville coach Jeff Walz, the former Maryland assistant who took over the Cardinals this summer for Tom Collen, who took the Arkansas job.
McCoughtry, who averages 24.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 5.2 steals, raised her visibility over the summer when she was named to USA Basketball's Pan American Games team that won a gold medal. She led the squad of collegiate players, including two from national champion Tennessee, in scoring and was second in rebounding.
"She's a great player," said Maryland's Marissa Coleman, a teammate of McCoughtry's on the Pan-Am team. "I got to see that she's very athletic. And she's a scorer, so it doesn't surprise me that she got a triple double. She rebounds extremely well, and she's just a great player."
McCoughtry, who had 21 points, 11 rebounds and 10 steals in a 22-point win over Xavier on Dec. 9, credits Temple coach Dawn Staley, who coached the Pan-Am team, with advising her to slow things down on the floor and to refrain from gambling so much on defense, lessons that have paid off this year.
"She's gone from gambling two-thirds of the time to maybe an eighth of the time," Walz said. "Now, she's playing within our system defensively because we're pressing a lot more. That's giving her an opportunity to get into passing lanes and make plays."
McCoughtry also has worked hard to become a better shooter. She is shooting 50.5 percent from the field - an upgrade from her career average of 48 percent - and 32.6 percent from three-point range. Walz said that after the team returned from a game at Vermont last week at noon, McCoughtry was on the Freedom Hall court an hour later shooting jumpers.
For Walz, McCoughtry's dedication to improvement is a part of the maturation process as a basketball player. While McCoughtry concurs, she also sees herself growing as a person. Toward that end, the East Baltimore native wants to improve not only to make the Cardinals better, but to further establish herself as a role model and as an example of how good Baltimore girls basketball can be.
"I just want to inspire a lot of other girls coming out of Baltimore," McCoughtry said. "It's rough growing up in Baltimore. I want a lot of females to say, `If Angel can do it, I can do it.' I just want to inspire other people."