March 27, 2023
Louisville fails to keep pace with Iowa in Elite Eight
Iowa's stars shone brighter in their matchup on Sunday night, but Louisville's season remains a source of light
Hailey Van Lith and Caitlin Clark know each other. They roomed together while playing USA Basketball in summers past. However, in the three years that Van Lith and Clark have played collegiate basketball, the two have never played against one another. The stars aligned on Sunday night at Climate Pledge Arena as the Iowa Hawkeyes and Louisville Cardinals went head-to-head in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament.
It’s easy to draw comparisons between Clark and Van Lith. Both are high-scoring guards with big personalities who fill the leadership role on their respective teams. But the parallels between these teams don’t stop there. Each squad features a gravitational force in the post and a master of perimeter defense. Monika Czinano and Olivia Cochran own the frontcourt, while Gabbie Marshall and Mykasa Robinson lock down the backcourt.
One glaring difference between the teams? Louisville entered the game as the team not many were talking much about, while Iowa entered as the team no one could stop talking about. Louisville head coach Jeff Walz took multiple opportunities during his allotted media availability this weekend to bemoan the lacking coverage of his team, at one point saying, “You watch ESPN, you watch the halftime show, I’m not even sure they knew we were playing.”
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Meanwhile, the volume of coverage devoted to Clark’s Player of the Year campaign has led the likes of Dawn Staley to voice concerns about the amount of oxygen given to Clark’s narrative and the risk of it choking out other valuable stories across women’s basketball.
For Louisville to control the narrative within the matchup against Iowa, they needed the players on their side of the parallels between these two teams to reign victorious. But as the Cardinals attempted to write themselves into a hero’s journey to the Final Four, the story that unfolded instead ended in a tragedy for Louisville as they fell to Iowa by a final score of 97-83.
While Van Lith scored 27 points, roughly nine more than her season average, only three of those points came in the third quarter as Iowa went on a tear to push the game out of reach. The rest of her stat sheet fell below her normal standard, with just two rebounds and three assists in a full 40 minutes on the floor. Against another opponent, such a performance would have been enough, but compared to Clark, Van Lith is simply a side character. Clark posted a 40-point triple-double, a first in NCAA Tournament history.
As Van Lith exited the post-game press conference following Louisville’s game against Mississippi, she doubled back to the microphone to make one last point. A few minutes prior, Robinson was asked to look ahead and preview the challenge of guarding Clark from the perspective of “one of the best perimeter defenders in the country.” Before exiting the interview, Van Lith wound back around the table and stumbled around in search of a live mic to declare Robinson, the best perimeter defender in the country.
In response to a follow-up question the next day, Van Lith expanded on her point, “[J]ust look at the stats, man,” she implored, “I mean, ever since I’ve been at Louisville, especially last year, Mykasa guarded the team’s best player and last year we were known for holding the best player to under 10 points, and that was because of her.”
Iowa drained (16) threes on the night, five more than their average. No one would tag Robinson with responsibility for all of those, nor can anyone say that’s the work of the best perimeter defender in the country.
Comparatively, Iowa’s best perimeter defender, Gabbie Marshall, drew the assignment of guarding Van Lith for most of the night. Van Lith went 3-9 from deep, relative to her usual 2-5, knocking her efficiency down 10%. The Cardinals, as a whole, went 8-22 from beyond the arc, a slightly above-average performance in the context of their season, where they typically knockdown (5) long balls per game at a success rate of about 31%. But it simply didn’t compare to the fire hose of backcourt offense unleashed by the Hawkeyes.
Louisville did win one comparative battle, however. Olivia Cochran showed out while sharing the paint with a fellow superstar. When asked pre-game about going up against Czinano, Cochran acknowledged the tall task ahead, “Monika is a great player, great finisher. I never played against her before. My first time [seeing her] was watching the game last night. I’m excited to play against her,” she said. “We’re both great post players and I feel like whoever gets the most stops that’s who is going to be successful.”
Speaking on what went into Cochran’s standout performance, Van Lith said, “I’ve just seen her grow every single year and she is a fighter. Whatever obstacle in regular life and [the] basketball world comes her way, like, she’s just always on top. She’s been challenged [in] this ACC tournament and this NCAA Tournament with elite post matchups.” Van Lith paused before continuing as though searching for words both strong enough and appropriate for a press conference to explain what makes Cochran great.
“[S]he’s a dog, man, like, she’s a competitor. She went out and fought. Every matchup she got, she went out and fought. I can’t ask any more of her. You just want to play with people who have heart and I couldn’t ask for a better person that has heart than Olivia.”
Cochran went on to more than double both her typical scoring output and her usual rebound total, finishing the night with 20 points and 14 boards. Czinano, on the other hand, scored half as much as she normally does, with just 9 points, and fouled out with three minutes remaining in the 4th quarter.
Coach Lisa Bluder expressed bewilderment post-game when reading Czinano’s stat line, “I look at the stat sheet and I think, gosh, Monika only had four points. That’s — is that right? No, I’m sorry, she only had two baskets. She had nine points but only two baskets. I don’t know that I could have thought of coming in and winning this game and Monika only having two baskets. I really don’t.” But Clark and Iowa’s supporting cast carried the team to a decisive victory.
Looking back at the final box score might lead one to believe that the Hawkeyes outplayed the Cardinals all game long, but Louisville went toe-to-toe with Iowa for three-quarters of the game, omitting the 3rd quarter leaves both teams even with 67 points. So what happened in the third? Iowa’s “[S]upporting cast made shots in that quarter, and that’s basically what it comes down to,” said Van Lith, “We stuck with the game plan pretty much all game, and the one thing that they had to do to win the game is what they were able to do in the third quarter.”
Tallying up the non-Clark points scored by quarter, the third does lead the way with 19, compared to 10, 16, and 11 scored in the first, second, and fourth respectively. The third was also tied with the fourth for Clark’s fewest assists in a quarter, with just two. The defensive resources Louisville was required to throw at Clark opened up opportunities for the rest of the Hawkeyes, and they made the most of it in the third.
Louisville’s defensive strategy against Clark varied throughout the game. Nearly every Cardinal squared up with her at some point during the game. After letting basically everyone try their hand at it, Walz seemed to opt for size over anything else and alternated Nyla Harris and Morgan Jones in and out of the rotation to handle the assignment rather than going with Robinson as many predicted pre-game.
Aside from individual assignments, Walz attempted to keep the Hawks on their toes with a variety of defensive schemes, including a box-and-1 to start the third quarter, “We came out in the second half, threw some stuff at ’em, scored four straight, and then just had a rebound slip through our hands and it gets kicked out and it turns into a three, and then all of a sudden it’s an 8-0 run.”
The hodgepodge of stratagems on defense didn’t phase the Hawkeyes, “[T]hey come out in a box-and-one to start the third quarter, a defense we haven’t seen in a couple games and nobody is flustered.” Clark said, speaking on her side of the press conference.
“Gabbie [stepped] up after missing, I think, four threes in the first half, three of which rimmed in and out and went off the backboard. So I think that speaks to Gabbie’s confidence. She makes ’em — two huge threes for us, and then I make a three, and he has to use a timeout, and it’s really like what do you do from there because it felt like that was their last resort defensively.”
Walz and the Cardinals threw the kitchen sink at Clark defensively. Clark ate it for lunch and asked for dessert.
Bluder gave her perspective on the momentum-shifting third quarter, “Hailey and Chrislyn [Carr] were the two that were hurting us in the first half,” she said, alluding to Carr’s nine first-half points all coming from beyond the arc, and Van Lith’s 8-0 run to start the game and ignite a 17-point half for her. Bluder continued, “And so we had to do something. And I thought we did. Gabbie Marshall did just a great job of hounding Hailey all over. Then Chrislyn doesn’t have a three the rest of the game.” As Louisville’s defense sputtered in the third, Iowa started to close the door.
With the door now closed on their season, Louisville reflected on the overall experience. Mere moments after the loss, Robinson, who just completed her final year, expressed gratitude, “I’ve been very blessed to be a part of an elite program. This run here with this team it’s been — it’s going to be very memorable for me. The games, they mean a lot, yeah, but this team, the coaches, these are people I’ll never forget and I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life.”
Cochran, who turned in a solid individual performance on Sunday, shared the credit with her teammates, “I’m just trying to get better every day. My teammates helped me a lot this year [to] do that. I was fighting demons all year and they kept my head high, very high, even when I was low, and I thank them for that.” As a current junior, she’ll have the opportunity to build on the foundation she established while battling through this season.
Fellow junior, Van Lith, spoke to how she will, or rather won’t, be using her experience in the tournament this year to drive her game going forward. “I’m not motivated by external factors. I’m motivated by myself, and I always have been. If we would have won the National Championship this year, I would have had the same amount of motivation in me. That’s just who I am.”
Compared to the historic, show-stealing performance put on by Clark and Hawkeyes on Sunday night, it would be easy for the Cardinals to feel like a footnote on the 2022-2023 NCAA season, to feel like a side quest on someone else’s rise to the top, or to simply feel forgotten. But that’s why they say, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Someone else’s great performance doesn’t make ours any less great, nor does it take away the memories formed and lessons learned on the way to greatness.
“Here at Louisville, we’re a family,” Robinson said at the close of her career with the Cardinals. “We do everything for each other. So even though we didn’t get the outcome we wanted tonight, we’ve had a hell of a season. And people can say we didn’t, but we know what it is here at Louisville, so I’m just super proud of this team.”
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