March 27, 2022 

How sweet it is to win in Wichita

Louisville and Michigan move on to the Elite 8 in Wichita

The Wichita Regional was set with all kinds of storylines, which made the Sweet 16 on Saturday, March 26, 2022, all that more enjoyable. Three of the top four seeds advanced with a No. 10 seed who was looking to keep Cinderella in Kansas’s largest city a few days longer. This Sweet 16 was a master class of some of the best coaches in today’s women’s game – Louisville’s Jeff Walz, Kellie Harper of Tennessee, Dawn Plitzuweit of South Dakota and Michigan’s Kim Barnes Arico. The intensity and all-out effort on the floor by every single player was everything you could have asked for and more.

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Sights, sounds and random details from the “Air Capital of the World”:

  • Of the four schools participating in the Wichita Regional, the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, SD, is the closest at 404 miles.
  • Jackson Harper, the son of Tennessee, coaches Kellie and Jon Harper, goes through pregame stretching and warmups with the team. He is going to have a leg up on every kid in his youth basketball league this spring and summer. 
  • New Mississippi State head coach Sam Purcell is on the bench for Louisville, fulfilling his duties as an assistant coach.
  • During introductions of game one, the Intrust Bank Arena jumbotron went blank. It was brought back to life midway through the first quarter of Louisville/Tennessee. There was not a malfunction during game two.
  • South Dakota, making its first-ever appearance in a Sweet 16, brought by far the most fans, including two student fan buses. The “U-S-D” chat filled Intrust Bank Arena on several occasions, making it feel like a Coyote home game.
  • Wichita Regional band highlights – Louisville members have the best cheers, “Rocky Top” is an iconic fight song. South Dakota plays Journey songs. Michigan has the most impressive horn section out of the four schools.

No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 4 Tennessee: The No. 1 seed came with pressure from the opening tip, leading 19-13 after the first quarter. They jumped on the Lady Vols to start the second, 27-13, forcing a quick Tennessee timeout. The half-court pressure by Louisville forced uncharacteristic turnovers and quick shots, giving the Cardinals run outs and threes in transition. Tennessee could not seem to get out of their own way in the first 20 minutes, going 1-12 from three-point range and just 29% from the field. 

Louisville senior Emily Engstler had 12 points in the first half (20 for the game) and with sophomore sensation, Haley Van Lith added 11 (23 on the night). Jeff Walz’s squad controlled tempo and possessions in the first half, looking way more comfortable than Tennessee in the half-court. 

Louisville was there on every catch by a Lady Vol and with no Jordan Horston, Tennessee seemed out of rhythm much of the night. Louisville led 55-50 at the end of three quarters. Their relentless pressure and ability to create offense with their defense as well as off penetration were the difference makers late. Veteran plays by seniors Engstler, Kianna Smith and Chelsea Hall kept Louisville in control down the stretch. The Cardinals advance to their second straight Elite 8 with a 76-64 victory.  

Hall, a transfer from Vanderbilt, has been an integral part of her team’s success this season, starting all 32 games for the Cardinals. “This is my first time in the tournament, so I’m so excited for this opportunity. I’m playing with a great group of girls and wouldn’t want to be here with anyone else. We’re excited to keep playing,” she said after the game

Tennessee was led by 6’1 senior Rae Burrell, who finished with 22 points (2-8 from 3). She was one of just two Lady Vols to hit double figures. They finished the day shooting just 24% from the field with 18 turnovers as a team. They did dominate Louisville on the glass (23 offensive rebounds) but could not capitalize when needed the most.

“We knew coming into this that it was going to be a battle,” Louisville’s Walz said postgame. “This crew – they are tough kids. They let me coach them hard. They let me push them. Our ultimate goal was to continue to play. We’re fortunate enough now to get the opportunity to play on Monday night.”

No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 10 South Dakota: If you expected anything less than a 40-minute intense slugfest in the Sweet 16 game, then you have not watched these two teams all season. Just as they did in their first two NCAA games, South Dakota brought their team defense, chasing down rebounds and loose balls early. Michigan’s All-American center Naz Hillmon drew the attention of at least two Coyotes on every catch, making Michigan dig deep into their half-court offensive playbook. The Wolverines took their first lead at the five-minute mark of the second quarter, 18-16, but there was no backing down from South Dakota. Behind 6’2 post Hannah Sjerven’s 11 points and 6 rebounds, they took a 26-24 lead into the half.

Michigan made some adjustments out of the break, bringing 1-2-2 full-court pressure at the Coyotes and a concerted effort to get Hillmon more touches on offense (she had just 6 shot attempts in the first half.) With length and size to their advantage, Michigan jumped hard on all of South Dakota’s high ball screens, double-teaming dribblers and forcing turnovers. The physicality of the Wolverine defense was a problem for the Coyotes in the third quarter. Michigan took a one-point lead into the fourth, led by a much more assertive Hillmon, who had nine points in the third quarter.

South Dakota’s Sjerven picked up her fourth foul early in the fourth, forcing Plitzuweit to go to her bench to weather the storm. The final quarter was back and forth, full of empty trips and big defensive stops. South Dakota went scoreless for almost five minutes and then Sjerven fouled out with 2:20 left, finishing with 17 points and 8 rebounds.

A pull up jumper by guard Chloe Lamb tied it at 48 with under a minute to play for the Coyotes. Michigan’s Laila Phelia went hard through the lane and finished in traffic to put her team up two with 23 seconds left on the next possession. Key free throws from junior Leigha Brown and no good looks for South Dakota on their final possession gave Michigan a 52-49 win and their first-ever trip to the Elite 8. Hillmon posted her sixth NCAA. The tournament double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds and Phelia added 14 for the Wolverines. 

After the game, Barnes Arico reflected on what this win means for her program and team. “Where Michigan is, this block M, if anyone told you ten years ago, you would have said no way. We have players that came in here with this vision and this belief that they could do something incredibly special. They wanted to be a part of that block M and that excellence, and here we are sitting at the table going to the Elite Eight. It’s just a dream like you could never imagine, but it’s people that came together and created something incredibly special. It’s awesome.” 

The season ends for Tennessee and South Dakota, but both teams played deep into March. They also made new fans throughout the Midwest over the weekend. Monday night’s regional final of Louisville and Michigan sets up for another intense slugfest, just as it should be for a berth in the 2022 Final Four.

Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a retired Kansas State shooting guard and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, Locked on Women's Basketball podcast host, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!

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