By Daniel Rankin —
Big smiles, tears of joy, and even bigger celebrations filled the Wichita night as the No. 1 seeded Louisville Cardinals defeated the No. 3 Michigan Wolverines Monday, 62-50, to advance to the Final Four.
Hailey Van Lith led the way late, finishing with 22 points on the night, marking her fourth straight game-breaking the 20 point threshold. However, it was an all-around team effort for the Cards, with multiple players contributing in a tough battle against Michigan.
Chelsie Hall stepped up early when the Michigan defense put substantial pressure on Van Lith, holding the Louisville offense down early. With Louisville’s best shooters covered, Hall stepped up and hit multiple shots to give the Cards the early momentum and finished with a critical 15 points on the night.
“We wouldn’t have won without her,” explained Van Lith. “She brought it on defense by pressuring their guards and was big-time tonight offensively.”
Although the Cardinals led for the entire first half, the game remained extremely tight, with their largest lead only hitting seven points. A late run from the Wolverines brought the game within one point with the chance to take the lead going into the half. However, Hall forced a crucial turnover in the closing seconds allowing Kianna Smith to extend the Cards’ lead to 30-27 going into the half.
In the third quarter, Louisville increased its lead up to nine with key jumpers from Van Lith and intense defense from the likes of Mykasa Robinson and Emily Engstler. But, the Wolverines continued to stay nearby and took advantage of foul trouble from Louisville’s starting forwards.
In a season that has been somewhat overshadowed by two fourth-quarter collapses, the game’s final ten minutes proved this team is ready for the next step forward.
Halfway through the quarter, the Louisville offense started to slow and gave Michigan the momentum. The Wolverines appeared to be on the brink of a game-ending run when Coach Walz called a timeout. The message in the huddle was clear, “We knew if we didn’t get stops in those last minutes, we wouldn’t win the game,” said Kianna Smith after the game. Coming off the timeout, the Cardinals did just that. In fact, more as Louisville held Michigan scoreless for the final 5:42 of the game.
Van Lith explained that their defensive intensity is something Walz has preached all year: “no matter what happens on the offensive end, we have to play tough defense and get stops down the floor.”
Forward Olivia Cochran, visibly exhausted, a foul away from exiting, and wearing an eye mask after getting elbowed against Tennessee, stepped up in a mighty way, icing the game and giving Louisville the Elite 8 victory.
For Head Coach Jeff Walz, it’s the program’s fourth Final Four appearance and first since 2018. The win also continues the trend of having every player under Jeff Walz appearing in the Final Four.
“‘I’m going to do whatever I can to win him a national championship,” stated Senior Emily Engstler, who shared what it means to play for Walz. Hailey Van Lith agreed, saying, “He always has our back and cares for us. It’s not just business or basketball; he works on the person you are off the court. Every girl on this team would run through a wall for him.”
While the team was rightfully excited about the win, they know it isn’t done yet. “We’ve accomplished something amazing, but I know we can go to the national championship and win,” stated Engstler confidently. Van Lith agreed, “We’ll do anything for each other, which makes us so dangerous; we’re doing this for our city.”
The Final Four begins this Friday, April 1, when the Louisville Cardinals face the defending National Champion South Carolina Gamecocks at 7 pm on ESPN.
Stay tuned here for more coverage as we preview and recap the final four and other U of L athletics news.
Photo by Daniel Rankin // The Louisville Cardinal