March 31, 2022 

2022 Final Four preview: Can Louisville’s defense stop Aliyah Boston?

'We're going to have our hands full,' Louisville's Jeff Walz says

Eight ACC teams entered the NCAA Tournament this season, and two of them had No. 1 seeds, including Louisville. Four teams from the league advanced to the second weekend – more than any other conference in the country.

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But entering the Final Four, just one of those teams is still standing.

That’s the Louisville Cardinals, who escaped the Wichita Region unscathed to appear in their fourth Final Four under Jeff Walz. Before Louisville hired him in 2007, it had never been to a women’s Final Four. Since then, the Cards have twice advanced to the national championship game.

Louisville has been a mainstay in March since Walz took the reins. Under the direction of the former understudy to Brenda Frese, the Cardinals have missed the NCAA Tournament just once and have advanced to seven Elite Eights.

With that, several WNBA draft picks produced and four regular-season ACC titles, Louisville has established itself as one of the sport’s new powers over the last decade and a half. Louisville is regularly ranked in the top 10, often lands some of the nation’s most talented recruits and transfers – Hailey Van Lith, Emily Engstler and Kianna Smith all fit this bill – and has consistently won at a high level.

On March 18, Walz agreed to a revised contract that keeps him in Louisville through 2029. Before that, according to USA Today’s database, he was already the highest-paid coach in the conference, earning $1.52 million this past season. Based on how he’s transformed the Cardinals’ women’s basketball program, it’s safe to say that Louisville’s brass believes he’s earned that and more.

Asked Tuesday whether he thought he had built his program into one of women’s basketball’s blue bloods, Walz said: “Yeah, I sure do. Our thing is we have to win that last game. That’s what it all comes down to. I think for people to really think we’re there, we have to win the national championship … Yeah, I think we are. There’s no question. I think South Carolina is, also.”

Ah, yes. South Carolina.

Making another Final Four is obviously a terrific and big accomplishment for the Cardinals, but they also have their eyes on a bigger, more coveted prize: the national title.

To get to Sunday’s championship game, Louisville has to get by the No. 1 overall seed, the Gamecocks, coached by Dawn Staley.

“They’re a great basketball team. Dawn does a fantastic job,” Walz said. “We’re going to have to play our best, there’s no doubt. At this time of the year, there’s no doubt: You’ve got to play your best or you’re not going to win.”

Louisville coach Jeff Walz watches the Cardinals play at UNC on Feb. 17, 2022. (Photo credit: Mitchell Northam/The Next)

Louisville will not win this game if it is unable to disrupt Aliyah Boston. Yes, the Gamecocks have other talented players, but Boston is arguably the top player in the country, and South Carolina largely goes as she goes.

Stifling Boston is a tall order, and few teams have successfully done it over the past three seasons. But Walz’s Cardinals just might be equipped to do so with their tenacity and creativeness on defense.

Louisville has played against other talented post players this season. Among them: Washington’s Nancy Mulkey, Michigan’s Naz Hillmon, Georgia Tech’s Lorela Cubaj, N.C. State’s Elissa Cunane, Notre Dame’s Maddy Westbeld and Maya Dodson, Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley and Tennessee’s Tamari Key.

Across nine games, here’s how those posts – many of whom garnered all-conference awards and are likely future WNBA players – fared against Louisville, on average:

10.7 points (making 3.8 of 8.4 shots for 45.2% shooting), 9.2 rebounds, 2.1 fouls, 2.9 turnovers and 1.7 assists per game.

Those are not eye-popping numbers, and the scoring and rebounding averages are well below Boston’s marks of 16.8 points (making 6.5 of 12 shots for 54.2% shooting) and 12.2 boards per game this season. Boston also has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio this season, while the other bigs struggled to do that against the Cardinals.

“Aliyah Boston obviously is one of the best players in the country, if not the best,” Walz said. “We’re going to have our hands full.”

Louisville has been efficient on defense all season long. In its few losses – just four of them – offense was often the problem, especially late in games. The Cardinals were held scoreless in the final five minutes of an ACC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Miami, in which Destiny Harden improbably went on a personal 15-0 run to lead the Canes to the upset. Similarly, Louisville’s offense sputtered in the fourth quarter in a regular-season loss at N.C. State, a game the Cards had led by double digits.

But it seems like Louisville’s offensive woes are a thing of the past. In four NCAA Tournament games since that shocking loss to Miami, Louisville is shooting 44.4% from the floor and 32% from 3-point land and dishing out 13.3 assists to 9.5 turnovers per game. Louisville’s average margin of victory in the tournament has been 13.5 points.

Nationally this season, according to Her Hoop Stats, the Cardinals are sixth in defensive rating (75.9), eighth in opponent points per 100 possessions (79.2), eighth in opponent points per play (0.69), 26th in defensive effective field goal percentage (41.1%), eighth in opponent assist-turnover ratio (0.53) and ninth in total turnovers forced (639).

Emily Engstler defends against Miami on March 4, 2022 at the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C. (Photo credit: Mitchell Northam/The Next)

Key to the Cardinals’ defense this season has been Engstler, who came to Louisville as a transfer from Syracuse. A versatile, lanky and smart defender, she’s 19th in the nation in steals per game (2.7), 14th in defensive rebound rate (28.7%), second in defensive win shares (5.1) and second in defensive rating (63.4), according to Her Hoop Stats. Engstler and DePaul rookie Aneesah Morrow are the only two players in the country who have played in at least 20 games and are averaging more than 2.5 steals, 1.5 blocks and 6.5 defensive rebounds per game.

For her efforts this season, Engstler finished third in ACC Player of the Year voting, made the All-ACC First Team and All-Defensive Team, was voted as an honorable mention All-American by the AP, and was a Naismith Defensive Player of the Year semifinalist.

“She always played with an edge, even at Syracuse. Putting her in positions defensively, how we play – we’re more of a man-to-man, we like to move and trap at different areas of the floor – has really taken her strengths and shown them off,” Walz said. “She’s so good at anticipating, reading the next pass, on the ball, help side. It’s really been fun to watch, and she’s been able to play, I think, a little bit more free at times at the defensive end, which has really been able to showcase her talents.”

Listed at 6’1, Engstler often looks taller because of how long she is. With her size, she’ll be crucial to whatever defensive scheme Walz and his staff draw up to frustrate the Gamecocks.

Written by Mitchell Northam

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