Olivia Cochran walked back to the locker room, an ice pack to her eye, which was fast swelling up like a prize fighter from a shot she took in the fourth quarter of Louisville’s 76-64 win over Tennessee in an NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen matchup at INTRUST Bank Arena on Saturday afternoon.
Cardinals’ coach Jeff Walz saw her coming and started chanting, “Rocky! Yo Adrian!” Then he caught himself. “You don’t know what that means, do you? I’ll have to show you.” Cochran, a 6-2 center who plays against much bigger post players every game – especially once the NCAA Tournament rolls around – lifted the ice pack and showed her swelling eye.
“I know, I know,” Walz said, as she entered the locker room.
“She’s 6-2 on a good day and sits down there and just pounds, gives it everything she has,” Walz said. “That’s why to me she’s one of the most valuable players we have. And I make sure I tell her and tell you all because it needs to be written. Without her, we ain’t still playing.”
You know that Hailey Van Lith scored 23 points, dished out 6 assists and lifted her game, as she is getting into the habit of doing, in the closing minutes to lead Louisville to the win. And you know that Emily Engstler, again, showed a diversity of skills that is rare in women’s college basketball, scoring 20 points, pulling down 10 rebounds, 3 blocks, a steal and who knows how many deflections to exert her influence on both ends.
But increasingly, this Louisville team is indebted to the other stories. I wrote a quick story on this game and posted it at the buzzer, and it said “Van Lith and Engstler lead Louisville past Tennessee.” And they did lead Louisville in scoring, and in a great many ways. But there were a great many leaders on the court.
Louisville needed an offensive lift in the second quarter, and freshman Payton Verhulst provided it, scoring 5 points and grabbing a rebound in relief of Kianna Smith.
“What we got from Payton, I would love to see Payton get 13, 14 minutes on Monday because I think she can really give us that lift,” Walz said. “Because the one thing I like about her, she isn’t scared to shoot the ball. There is not a bone in her body that’s nervous. She just gets that thing, turns and she puts it up. I’m telling you, the shots she made were big-time shots for us.”
In the third, quarter it was Chelsie Hall’s turn. The graduate point guard from Vanderbilt playing in her first NCAA Tournament showed no nerves. She’s played plenty against Tennessee, and scored 9 of Louisville’s 15-points in the third quarter after the Vols got off to a quick start.
“Chelsie I thought played really, really well, 4 assists, one turnover on the night, big shots, and that 3 in the third quarter,” Walz said. “She runs our team. She does a great job of running our team. I’ve been trying to get her to be more vocal. It’s just not her. She leads by example, she leads in the timeouts of telling people what they need to do, and she’s a competitor. When you are willing to go out there and compete every single play, you’ve got a chance. That’s what she does.”
Mykasa Robinson does what she always does, provides defensive intensity, and is increasingly an authority in the point guard spot, running the offense and organizing the attack. She didn’t score a point in 20 minutes but had 2 steals, 2 assists and often was dropping down to take on offensive players 8 inches taller, if not more.
“Mykasa, if you look at her stat line, it’s not something where you’re going to write a story about, but without her we aren’t advancing either because that kid gets in there and battles with one through five, it doesn’t matter,” Walz said. “She does a great job of getting others involved. So really, really proud of her as well.”
Liz Dixon provided big minutes off the bench, and actually wound up playing more minutes (23) than Cochran (16).
“I’m so proud of this whole group,” Walz said. “Just tough, tough kids.”
And if there are unsung players, there were also unsung pays. A steal where Hall knocked the ball back into the inbounder. Jump balls, rebounds, you name it. In fact, Walz did.
“We came up with some big plays that, you know, you might not pay attention to,” Walz said. “You know, we sit there and miss a shot, air ball it with 3 on the shot clock, and it’s still live, and then Kasa goes over and grabs it, and it turns into a jump ball call. It’s their arrow, they were about to get it anyway if the shot clock expires, but now we get the next jump ball. Those are the types of plays you’ve got to get. You’ve got to get the 50-50 plays. Emily misses a free throw, her second one, we track it down, and it turns into a jump ball call underneath our basket. Now it’s their ball, but now we’ve got the arrow the last six minutes. That’s how you can save a timeout as well. When your kid is stuck in a trap, if you’ve got the arrow, there is no sense to burn a timeout because you’re getting the ball. Those are the plays you have to be able to make, and I was really proud we were able to do that tonight. . . . Emily boxing out on the free throw and then it turns into a foul. So she gets to come down, and we’re shooting free throws. Those are the possessions that can change a game, where we didn’t even have to run an offense. You’re going to the line to shoot 2.”
And, if you pile enough of those plays up, you’re going to the Elite Eight, and maybe beyond.