ST. LOUIS (AP) – Angel McCoughtry answered her coach’s harsh halftime criticism with a performance that lifted Louisville into its first national championship game.

McCoughtry scored 14 of her 18 points in the second half and added 11 rebounds, helping the Cardinals crawl out of an early hole to beat Oklahoma 61-59 in the national semifinals Sunday night and end Courtney Paris’ stellar career.

“Nobody expected us to be here,” McCoughtry said. “We have not one high school All-American on our team, but these girls worked hard. I’m so proud of them.”

Down 12 points at halftime, Louisville got back into the game with a 15-1 run while the Sooners’ shooting went south – just 26.9 percent in the second half. Still, Oklahoma had a chance to win it in the final seconds with Nyeshia Stevenson’s good look on a 3-point attempt, but it rattled out.

“In my head, it was going in,” Stevenson said. “I knew I was wide open. I was confident every second.”

As was McCoughtry, even after missing her first seven shots of the game, prompting coach Jeff Walz’s rebuke.

“I told Angel it was the worst I’ve seen her play,” he said. “She was an embarrassment.”

Appearing in their first trip to the Final Four, McCoughtry and her teammates got their nerves under control in the second half to take control of the game. Keshia Hines added 10 rebounds and nine points for the Cardinals (34-4), who’ll face unbeaten and top-ranked Connecticut – an 83-64 winner over Stanford – in the final Tuesday night.

Out too soon, four-time All-American Paris now must fulfill her promise to pay back the cost of her four-year scholarship if the Sooners failed to win the title. She left the court in tears after exchanging hugs with McCoughtry and huddling with her team for a final time.

“I do make good on the guarantee,” said Paris, whose father is former NFL offensive lineman Bubba Paris. “Not today, though. Obviously, I don’t have $64,000 waiting, but I do make good on it.”

Paris goes home without ever playing in a national championship game. In fact, this was her first trip to the Final Four. Still, her name dots the record book. She is the NCAA’s best rebounder of all time and the first player to block at least 100 shots in each of her four years in college.

True to her consistent play, Paris finished with another double-double – 14 points and 16 rebounds. Her NCAA-record double-double streak ended at 112 games on Feb. 2, finishing an unbelievable run that started in December of her freshman year.

Ashley Paris, Courtney’s twin sister, had 16 points and seven rebounds for Oklahoma, which almost got a dramatic win.

Louisville looked nervous while enduring an awful first half. The Cardinals fell behind 16-2 after 71/2 minutes and finished the half down by 12 after season-worst 22-percent field-goal shooting.

McCoughtry, who averages 23.2 points, went without a point for more than 16 minutes.

“Just a group of kids in that locker room that I challenged at halftime as much as I could have challenged a group,” Walz said.

The Big East defensive player of the year contributed in other ways even when the shots weren’t falling, and finished with five steals and two blocked shots.

“Sometimes you have bad games,” McCoughtry said. “It proves that you are human. The thing is not to get down on yourself, keep playing for the team.”

The Cardinals took their first lead on a drive by McCoughtry with about 15 minutes to go. Oklahoma missed nine of its first 10 shots, and never was able to regain control.

“We came out too relaxed and Louisville did a good job taking advantage of that,” Courtney Paris said.

Walz, a former Maryland assistant, guided Louisville to its first Sweet 16 appearance last season. The Cardinals continued to make strides this year, knocking off the top-seeded Terrapins in the Raleigh Regional final.

And now he’s got them in the title game after a memorable halftime address.

“I told them, ‘If you want to come out here and compete and follow our game plan, tell me,”‘ Walz said. “And they’re all like ‘Yeah, we will, we will.’ And I thought we did a great job.”

AP-ES-04-05-09 2333EDT

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