Louisville celebrates McCoughtry's career, retires her jersey

Baltimore native will be honored before opener of new downtown arena

November 10, 2010|By Ken Murray, The Baltimore Sun

When Angel McCoughtry left Louisville in 2009 after a magical Final Four run with the women's basketball team, the Baltimore native was one of the college game's most dominant players.

She was a three-time All-American, Big East player of the year (2007) and defensive player of the year (2009), as well as the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder.

But she has become so much more. When McCoughtry returns to the Louisville campus this week, it will be as one of the rising stars in the WNBA, a stalwart on the U.S. women's team and a young woman of uncommon character.

It's been a whirlwind journey for McCoughtry, whose return kicks off a new era for Louisville while celebrating an old one. The school will retire her jersey Friday night in front of a sellout crowd of 22,000 at KFC Yum! Center before the Cardinal women tip off against Tennessee. It will be the first basketball game played in the new $238 million downtown arena along the banks of the Ohio River.

"I'm so honored and so excited to be the first women getting her jersey retired in the new arena," McCoughtry said. "It's going to be awesome to hang the jersey in the new arena."

Excited enough that she'll make a nine-hour flight from Istanbul, Turkey — where she has a game in the Euro League on Wednesday — for the event, only to turn around and fly back to Hungary on Sunday. (She plays for MKB Euroleasing in Sopron, Hungary.)

Two years into dual careers in the WNBA and Europe, McCoughtry, 24, finally has a chance to celebrate a college career that ended with the national championship game (and loss to UConn) in 2009.

"She finished playing for us two years ago now," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "She was in the midst of her rookie year in the WNBA and went straight from there to playing overseas her first year. We knew this was something we were going to do and it's well deserved for her to have her jersey retired. At the same time we wanted to do it when she could be part of it."

Groundbreaking for the arena started shortly after McCoughtry graduated. Somewhere along the way, Walz envisioned linking the opening of the new facility with McCoughtry's return.

McCoughtry played for Walz only one season, but it was a spectacular 34-5 season that made women's basketball a must-see event at Freedom Hall, where the Cardinals averaged more than 7,000 fans at home — up from 2,000 during her freshman and sophomore years. She finished with 2,779 points and 1,261 rebounds.

It was more than basketball, though, in which McCoughtry excelled at Louisville. That's also where she began to reach out to kids in the community.

Sharon McCoughtry, her mother, said Angel always had a desire to work with kids, especially girls. But in Louisville, she started taking speaking engagements with youth groups. She visited hospitals and a women's shelter.

This fall Angel ran a basketball camp for young girls in Louisville. She said she has plans to do camps in Baltimore, too.

"I started my own foundation this year [the Angel McCoughtry Foundation], and I have a program for SAT prep for kids, something I had trouble with," she said. "I'm doing a lot of things with that.

"The camps are getting exposure for young girls. I'm doing a lot in Atlanta, too. It's been proven that kids in sports are more likely to go to college and be more successful in life."

McCoughtry finished her second season with the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA in the fall. She averaged 21.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists, and took the third-year expansion team to the league finals, where it lost to the Seattle Storm.

In no time at all, McCoughtry has made her mark beyond college.

"The fact she has led the worst team in the league to the championship series in two years, and the fact she was selected to the U.S. Senior National team says a tremendous amount about her," said Donna Orender, president of the WNBA. "She's definitely an elite talent."

McCoughtry scored a league playoff record 42 points to close out the New York Liberty in a best-of-three semifinal in September. Her jersey is the top woman's seller in Atlanta, and it's in the top 15 in the league.

"Her promotional profile is building," Orender said. "She's definitely turning heads. She's very focused on mentoring young girls. For a young player who clearly has her horizons set very high, she's a full, well-rounded person."

Walz knew McCoughtry when he was an assistant at Maryland and recruited her out of St. Frances. He credits her character to the influence of parents Sharon and Roi.

"She comes from a great family," Walz said. "She has wonderful home support, parents and grandparents that cared about bringing her up the right way. It speaks volumes for who she is. She's a big believer in giving back."

Friday, Walz and Louisville will give something back to McCoughtry — a prominent place in a new arena.

"To have her come back, to see her jersey put up in the rafters and then to do it in front of 22,000 … it will be a special night for both of us," Walz said.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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