WICHITA, Kan. — One Louisville women’s basketball Elite Eight victory story. This shouldn’t be too hard. I’ve been to every Final Four the program has played in. I also was a student at U of L when they still played some home games at Manual High School.
It is 4:30 a.m. Why do these stories always involve some kind of all-nighter?
The thing about this game, this 62-50 win over Michigan, like all of these games, is that whatever happened immediately fades into two scenes: The celebration, and the expectation surrounding the next game.
The seconds tick off the clock, and a 30-minute blur commences. Players are running everywhere. Security guys are putting up a rope, strategically placed so that you can almost get some decent pictures of all that is going on. Family members materialize on the court. Kids. Lots of cell phones. Everybody is FaceTiming somebody.
There’s lots of hugging. Some tears. Here’s Tara Williams. She’s the mother of Louisville center Olivia Cochran. Maybe that’s a good place to start. Williams was a guard at Auburn in the late 1990s, went to the Elite Eight but couldn’t push through to the Final Four, stopped by Louisiana Tech. She played two years in the WNBA.
“Olivia did what I couldn’t,” she said. “She got me there.”
Well, Williams helped get her daughter there, too. It’d been a rough weekend for Olivia Cochran. She fouled out of Louisville’s win over Tennessee, and took an elbow to her left eye, causing it to swell up badly.
“I worked it. My sister is a nurse and she said use witch hazel, and that took a lot of the swelling down, but it was still black and closed,” Williams said. “So my uncle called, he’s 80 years old, and he said, ‘Go get some fat back.'”
Her response was, “What’s fat back?” He said it was on the pork. You peel the fat off, wash it, and put it on her eye.
Thank you, Uncle Marvin.
“I guess it worked,” Cochran said. “It ain’t swollen no more.”
Even so, Cochran got into early foul trouble. She spent most of the first half on the bench. She picked up her fourth foul on a clean block.
Then, with Michigan having gained the momentum and Louisville struggling to score with its lead down to a precarious 2 points, she scored on a layup to break a 5:13 scoring drought and put the Cardinals up 4. Then she took a charge from Michigan’s Naz Hillmon, and made another layup on the other end, and the Louisville lead was 6 with 1:56 left. After some missed chances by Michigan, another Cochran score with 33 seconds left sealed it.
All weekend, frustrated. Walz spent all weekend talking about how valuable Cochran is. Now, he doesn’t have to say anything. Louisville isn’t cutting down nets without her.
“I feel like she is the heart of the defense,” Williams said. “She don’t care who she guards. She’s going to fight.”
Walz says she gave every ounce of energy she had. He called a 30-second timeout just to let her rest, from going against Hillmon all night. He says she drew the charge because she was too tired to get out of the way. Whatever the case, she pushed the Cardinals through.
On the other side of the floor, Hailey Van Lith’s dad, Corey, seldom at a loss for words, can’t seem to find enough.
His daughter scored 22 points, and has had 20 or more in every tournament game. She’s risen a level on the sport’s biggest stage. She was named Regional MVP.
“It just rewards everything we’ve worked so hard for since she was 6 or 7 years old,” he said.
Nobody outworks Van Lith. Famously, coaches told her she was working too hard, that she needed to rest, not to press.
“I think for me he works on the person you are off the court,” she said, when asked about Walz. “I’m a stubborn one, and he’s had to teach me to enjoy life outside of basketball.”
Then she starts to tear up. And Walz reaches over to hug her.
“Yeah. He cares about you off the court, and it’s not just a business. I think it’s pretty obvious the emotion that we play with and the emotion that he coaches with, that we would run for a wall — every girl on this team would run through a wall for him. And so I think that’s what makes us dangerous in this Final Four.”
Engstler, who had spoken just prior, found herself crying, and Walz had come over to hug her. It wasn’t a great offensive game for Engstler. She had just 5 points and went 1-for-9 from the field. But she also had 16 rebounds, 6 steals, 4 assists and a blocked shot. She dictated play with her defense.
“He’s meant the world to me, personally,” Engstler said. “I think it’s been a difficult three years for me, and he was just somebody who took me under his arms and didn’t really care who I was or where I was coming from on a mental level, and I really appreciate him.”
Louisville players talk about Jeff Walz
Here she has to stop, overcome with emotion, and Walz comes over and puts his arm around her and says something in her ear. And she goes on.
“He’s a good person. I love you too, man,” she said. “He’s a good person and he’s a good person on the court. He’s just really fun to play for. He lets you be yourself and he protects you and you can trust him, and that’s hard in this industry. So I’m grateful for him, and I’m going to do whatever I can to get him a national championship.”
You see what I’m talking about? All of a sudden, we’re into stuff far deeper than a basketball game. Oh, but there was a game, and grad transfer Chelsie Hall was a star. She scored 15 points on Monday night for the Cards, most of them in a first half when they badly needed an offensive lift. The defense was blitzing Van Lith and Kianna Smith, daring Hall to beat them.
The players try to describe what they are feeling.
“It’s electric,” Engstler said. “It feels like we’ve accomplished something amazing. I feel successful, but not just there quite yet. I really think this team can go to a national championship and win it. But we’re going to live in this moment, just like we’ve been doing when we have been playing the games. We deserve to soak this in. It feels really cool to look around and see people who have been here for 15 years and players who have been here three to four years and see happy tears down their eyes. Just to be able to be a part of that, it’s been a fun ride.”
I look back at the photos of players cutting down the nets and see pure joy. There is pride in work that was done. A lot of hard times had to be endured to get to the top of that ladder with those scissors.
“The relationship that I have with all of these kids, I treat them like they’re my own, OK?” Walz said. “As I tell them when I recruit them, and three of my four are back there sitting down, they can tell you they don’t like me all the time. Because as a parent you have to parent, and sometimes you have to discipline. That’s what we do here with our team. We’re just — and I say it and I’m glad you were able to see the passion that they spoke about tonight. Because at the end of the day, we are coaching and playing a game of basketball, but our jobs as coaches is to try to help prepare these young ladies for life after. It’s tough. Life is hard. As you all know. We’ve got to make sure when they leave here that they’re at least more prepared for it than they were when they came in. I love all of them. Just so excited for every single one of them.”
The music still blaring from the team’s locker room, Louisville assistant Beth Burns and Walz slip away. Walz wants one more picture, with his fourth Final Four trophy, in the middle of the empty court.
He holds the trophy. His hat is on backwards. He’s put on the same T-shirt the players are wearing. He looks like he just finished a rec league softball doubleheader.
But he also looks like he won. More joy. He takes one photo alone, one with Burns. Within the hour, they’ll be on a plane back to Louisville, and back to work, trying to figure out a way to beat South Carolina.
He came to Louisville and the program had never been to a Sweet Sixteen. Now, in 15 years, no four-year player under him has failed to reach a Final Four.
They head back up the ramp to the locker room, toward the noise and pulsating music, and a celebration that has been a long time coming.