WICHITA, Kan. — You look at the Louisville women’s basketball team, and on appearances alone, it’s tough to lump them in with teams like South Carolina, or even ACC champion North Carolina State or defending national champion Stanford.
Louisville coach Jeff Walz acknowledged, before the Cardinals beat Tennessee by 12 points to earn a shot at Michigan on Monday night at 9 in the Elite Eight, that there are still people around the women’s game “who wonder how we win so much.”
You look at them on paper, and you figure they’re a bit short on size. The analytics say the same thing, on paper. South Carolina is ranked No. 1 by the efficiency ratings at HerHoopStats.com, with a rating of 44.5. Next come N.C. State (41.6), Stanford (39.8), UConn (37.5) and Louisville (35.6). Those numbers, from one to the next, represent pretty steep drops in the world of those rankings.
I get all that. But watch this team on the court. They swarm (actually the word Walz uses is “scramble”). They are far tougher than you think. Oliva Cochran, who at 6-2 is undersized for a post player in an elite program, is an elite post player. She got hit above her left eye in Saturday’s Sweet Sixteen win over Tennessee, had a large welt immediately swell up, but showed up a day later saying, “I’m fine. The game is physical. I’ll wear a mask.”
Mykasa Robinson comes off the bench and gives up 8 inches and 60 pounds, but wades into the post to do battle with players far larger. She guards all five positions and does it well. It does defy explanation.
Until the metrics come up with a way to measure heart.
You look at this team in warmups, then look at the other team, and notice the size disparity, and think, “Not tonight.” Then Louisville starts pressing. They attack the ball. What they lack in size they make up in intensity. When they miss shots, they just press harder.
They have been up on some of the best teams in the country this season, and not by a little bit.
They are a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed for a reason.
People remember that they melted down in their season’s worst moment, giving up a 12-point fourth-quarter lead at N.C. State to lose by 8. They forget that when they were executing, the Cardinals were a good bit better than the Wolfpack, leading by as many as 16.
They remember Louisville losing a 16-point lead late at Miami in their ACC Tournament opener, a loss Walz took the blame for by pulling his starters too soon. They forget that one game prior, they led Notre Dame, a team that just exited the tournament in the Sweet 16, by a score of 46-8, in South Bend.
This team has played championship-level basketball this season. And during those stretches when the Cardinals have been at their very best, they have humbled some very good teams, including their opponent on Monday night, in a 22-point victory back in December.
They are playing in their fourth straight Elite Eight. And they are confident. Asked what it is about Walz that has enabled him to make this program succeed at the level it has, Louisville senior Kianna Smith didn’t have to think long.
“I think his passion for the game,” she said. “It just shows in Louisville basketball culture, I think it’s from top to bottom. Every single assistant coach, every single player on this team shows that passion for the game just like Coach Walz does, that intensity. And also it shows in his preparation. I think he really prides in the scouts and the X’s and O’s part of the game. And he really has us prepared. So, I think that intensity just shows in our in our Louisville basketball culture.”
Hailey Van Lith is just a sophomore, but she gives voice to “Louisville basketball.” She, too, exemplifies the kind of toughness Walz wants to see.
“We’re going to keep playing Louisville basketball and do us,” she said. “If you match up with us, you better be ready to play. That’s all I’m going to say because we’re coming to win. . . . We’re going to play hard. We’re going to bring intensity. We’re going to execute, defend.”
Right now, they believe. They have surprised opponents with their intensity, even though they’ve seen it on film.
Walz also knows they are capable of scoring slumps and defensive lapses. He told them they could get to a Final Four, or lose in the tournament’s second game. They’re past the second game, and now, one game away from the Final Four, have their eye on that prize – and more.
“Getting to a Final Four would be everything,” Smith said. “But I would say, like, our goal is to win it all. We don’t want to sell ourselves short. You know ,we want to do something that Louisville basketball has never done before and that’s win the national championship. But we’re not looking too far ahead. We’re taking it one game at a time and enjoying all the little moments together.”
This stuff is not easy. There are few harder things in college sports than cracking the upper echelon of women’s basketball. It is not designed for you. Louisville beat Tennessee in the Sweet Sixteen. Tennessee made the Sweet Sixteen every year from the inception of the women’s NCAA Tournament until 2009. On Monday, Connecticut will be playing to earn its 14th straight trip to the Final Four.
It is the No. 2 seed in its region. The No. 1 seed, N.C. State, will have to beat the Huskies on a virtual home court in Bridgeport, Conn. The Wolfpack, trying to break into the upper echelon themselves, will have to earn it. The same thing happened to Louisville three years ago. Top seed, had to face UConn in Albany, N.Y.
Half of last year’s Final Four has already made it back. UConn is seeking to make it three-quarters.
But Louisville players, if they know their program’s history, know that Louisville did the unthinkable in 2009 by crashing the women’s basketball glass ceiling all the way to the championship game. They did it again in 2013 – and had to upset a dominant program in Baylor on a virtual homecourt to get there.
Both times, they reached those levels where they were playing their best basketball against the nation’s best teams, and wound up on top. Who’s to say this group can’t do the same thing?
If Van Lith has no problem gigging a former president (Barack Obama) for picking against her team, she and her teammates also have no problem embodying the title of one of his books, “The Audacity of Hope.”
You’re not going to find a lot of rationale for that hope on paper. But the Louisville players aren’t much interested in paper. They have made their mistakes and learned from them, and come away confident and hungry.
“I’ve never cut down a net, I’ve never won a championship,” Emily Engstler said. “I’ve never been to a Final Four. I’ve never passed the second round. So this would mean everything to me. I mean, this is my last year. Just leave it all out on the court. . . . Sometimes you have a feeling, and I really feel good about this team and this program. And I think we’re going to get there, but I think we have to continue to keep our mind on one thing and one game at a time. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”