March 25, 2023 

Lost and found: Louisville finds identity, Mississippi struggles with it in Sweet 16

Mississippi's dominant defense faltered against a Louisville team clicking at the right time

SEATTLE — Louisville and Mississippi entered their Sweet 16 matchup espousing the same cliché: Defense wins championships. Defense had been Mississippi’s foundation all season long. Louisville, on the other hand, led with their offense to start the season, while their defense needed more time to cook.

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Now the Cardinals are cooking with gas, and Friday night in Seattle, they combined a hot defense with a full serving of offense to take down Mississippi 72-62.

Mississippi’s path to the Sweet 16 began with a 71-48 win over Gonzaga, a team that averaged 71.6 points per game, with a decent chunk of those points coming from beyond the arc. But against Mississippi, the Zags were held to 1-for-17 shooting from three and finished the night more than 20 points below their usual standard. When Mississippi’s defense is clicking, it holds opponents to season lows in scoring and stymies even strong shooters.

Following that game, Mississippi head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin spoke about her team — a squad that wears shirts that say “We Defend” at practice — and said, “We don’t want to have an identity crisis right now. We want to be who we are and that’s defense, and our defense is the engine to our offense.”

During Friday’s game, Louisville guard Hailey Van Lith opened the scoring by connecting on a 3-pointer, and teammate Merissah Russell went deep a few minutes later. Louisville, which is shooting 34.4% from 3-point range this season and averages 5.4 makes per game, finished the first half 4-for-7 from distance. It finished the game shooting 47% from deep after establishing the perimeter threat early.

For a team with a motor that runs on defense, letting an opponent do damage from the beyond the arc is akin to a flashing “check engine” light on the dashboard. After the game, McPhee-McCuin said, “I didn’t feel like we had control of the game at any point, and that’s different for my team. I think the lights got bright and there were a lot of times I didn’t even know who I was coaching. Like, when do we give up 20 points in a quarter? That’s uncharacteristic.”

Mississippi tried to stay within itself and keep its defense the main thing. From the opening possession, which saw multiple Cardinals collide with Mississippi defenders as they attempted to get set on offense, Mississippi’s defensive aggression set the tone. But rather than establishing a consistent pressure, as showcased in Mississippi’s win over Stanford in the second round, the aggression led to a chaotic energy. It heightened over the course of the game, leading to six fouls in the final six minutes of Mississippi’s season as it scrambled to cut into Louisville’s 12-point lead.

The Cardinals’ defense has evolved and improved throughout the season. Towards the end of the season and in the ACC Tournament, the team shifted its mindset from an individualized approach to defending to a more team-oriented one. “It’s not ‘Did my man score?’ It’s ‘Did they score?’” head coach Jeff Walz explained after Louisville held Notre Dame to 38 points on March 4. “And we were communicating so well today and picking up for each other.”

Walz added in the same press conference, “What an unbelievable effort we had at the defensive end of the floor. Just the fight we had. We go 1-for-13 from three, 15-for-20 at the free-throw line. [But] we out-rebounded them by 12. We only turned it over 12 times. Just our effort defensively was fantastic …

“That’s something that we’ve built this program on over a 16-year stretch is we might not score, but it’s going to be damn hard for you to score,” he said. “And unfortunately, [earlier] this season, we didn’t have that for some reason.”

Van Lith and junior forward Olivia Cochran also testified to the importance of defense after that game, which sent the Cardinals to the ACC Tournament championship game. “I think offensively we’ve been pretty consistent all season,” Van Lith said. “It was just a matter of if we were going to decide to step up to the plate defensively,” she said. “And I think we’ve all decided to trust each other is what I feel has been the main difference.”

“Defenses win championships, so we’ve got to play defense to keep winning, and I feel like that’s our spark,” Cochran added.

On Friday, Louisville held Mississippi’s top scorer, guard Angel Baker, to 11 points. Guards Myah Taylor and Marquesha Davis led Mississippi in scoring with 19 points each, but no one else made significant contributions on offense. Mississippi got just six points from its bench and only nine points off turnovers, well below its season average of 17.6. Mississippi’s strongest offensive streak came in the second quarter, when it went on a 8-0 run composed of jumpers from Snudda Collins, Davis and Baker followed by a layup from Taylor. The run allowed Mississippi to pull within one point of the Cardinals, then take the lead less than two minutes later. That lead would be its last.

In contrast, Louisville’s offensive output was sourced from four double-digit scorers and 27 points off the bench. Van Lith led the way with 21 points, guards Mykasa Robinson and Morgan Jones each dropped 11, and Cochran contributed 10.

While that scoring ability always existed on Louisville’s roster, it took Walz some time to figure out how to maximize it. In his postgame comments, he said, “We changed our lineup. … We’ve got kids that can score the basketball now [coming off the bench] where, at the beginning of the year I had, I would say, 90% of our scoring in our starting five. And it’s just really helped open some things up. …

“They have adjusted to it because it hasn’t impacted their playing time. That’s why I keep telling them. It’s not going to impact the amount of minutes you play; it’s just when you start being out there during the game. And it’s great because they really care about winning.”

As Walz noted, the players bought into the approach and accepted the roles that optimize everyone’s ability to perform rather than getting caught up in how many games they’re starting. Van Lith said, “What I think makes us unique is that you have to guard our bench players. You have to know who they are on the scouting report. You can’t just leave them open because they’re good and they can score and they can defend and they can rebound.” The need to study, game-plan for, and devote resources to an entire lineup rather than a few key players takes some of the focus off of team leaders like Van Lith, allowing them to do more.

Other players have discovered the perks of coming off the bench and used it to their advantage. “Liz [Dixon] has come off the bench for three years,” Walz said, “and she will tell you, she enjoys coming off the bench because she likes to watch the game. She wants to see the speed of the game, the flow of the game.”

In the Sweet 16, the game flows a bit differently. Mississippi entered the game with a strong identity: “We Defend.” But when the team took the floor, McPhee-McCuin noticed a difference in her players.

“The stage, Sweet 16 — it was our first time. Our players wanted to do so well,” she said. “Sometimes human nature is a beast, man. I just felt like we just couldn’t get a hold of the moment and settle in like I wanted us to.”

While her players may have felt the heat of the bright lights this year, she’s certain that her team will get used to it. “We’ll be back,” she said.

On the other side, Louisville has been on this stage for five years straight. Some outside observers saw this Louisville team as inconsistent, perhaps because it lacks the singular identity of a team like Mississippi. Inside the Cardinals’ locker room, however, they don’t feel that. Robinson, a seasoned fifth-year player, exuded tranquility when speaking about her team’s season.

“As far as ups and downs go, I wouldn’t say we’ve had it too rough of a season like everyone says,” Robinson said. “I think that it took us a little bit longer to glue and we did it at a good time, and that’s why we’re playing like we are.”

Louisville found its identity at the right time.

As Walz put it, “We’re going to continue to roll, we’re going to continue to play, and … we’re going to enjoy this tonight. I told my staff — they’re all worried, ‘We’ve got to start watching film.’

“I said, ‘I’m not. I’m going to the bar.’ You know? You got to enjoy it.”

Written by Kiri Oler

Kiri Oler has been a contributor to The Next as a news and feature writer since December 2022.

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