March 29, 2022
Sights and sounds from the Wichita regional
How Louisville flew back to the Final Four
WICHITA — By the time the Elite 8 matchup in the Wichita Regional was ready to tip, the sun had set outside, and the wind had died down across the Flint Hills of Kansas. Three teams had punched their ticket to the 2022 Final Four with one spot left on the dance floor. Would the No. 1 seed advance to Minneapolis? Or would a No. 3 seed crash the dance party and represent in Big Ten country?
Louisville and Michigan faced each other earlier this season in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and it was a resounding 70-48 win by the Cardinals at home. But ask anyone, including those who watched the Sweet 16 games at Intrust Bank Arena on Saturday – these teams are not who they were in December 2021. They are each better in every phase of the game. The emotional and historical storylines were significant. Michigan was making its first appearance in school history in the Elite 8. Louisville was staring down their fourth straight Elite 8 appearance and looking to put last year’s loss to Stanford in this exact game in the rearview mirror.
Head coaches Jeff Walz (Louisville) and Kim Barnes Arico (Michigan) have been coaching colleagues and friends for years, going back to their Big East days and time with USA Basketball. Their staffs had approximately 48 hours to regroup and get their teams ready for an opportunity of a lifetime. When the final horn sounded, this was the intense, physical slugfest everyone expected it to be.
The game’s first basket came at the 7:09 mark by Louisville senior Kianna Smith. As expected, the pressure defense from the Cardinals forced Michigan into early turnovers and well-guarded shots. The Wolverines got on the board with a 3-point play by all-American Naz Hillmon, who did what she does best – hit the offensive glass and score through contact. Louisville is up 17-13 after the first 10 minutes.
The slugfest continued in the second quarter with physical play in the paint and very few whistles. Louisville went all in on with their pressure, making post entries for Michigan difficult and forcing them into guarded penetration. Louisville started the quarter 4-8 from the field. Michigan went over three minutes without scoring, ending the drought on a difficult up and under move by post Emily Kiser. Barnes Arico mixed up the defensive looks in the second quarter, bringing 1-2-2 full-court pressure at Louisville but an offensive rebound by senior Mykasa Robinson and a layup with three seconds left by Smith put the Cardinals up 30-27 at the half.
Louisville’s senior guard Chelsie Hall led all scorers with 13 points in the first half. Hillmon had 9 points and five rebounds for Michigan at the break. The Wolverines committed 11 turnovers and went just 2-7 from the three-point range. The Cardinals scored 14 points off Michigan’s turnovers – as expected, Walz’s team was creating offense with their defense.
“Chelsie Hall was big tonight for us. She made big time shots. Defensively she was outstanding. She caused so much chaos,” Walz said during the postgame press conference. “I am so excited and happy for her. You look at her last year at Vanderbilt and they opted out because of COVID and now she’s getting to play in a Final Four. What a storybook. She’s been nothing but an asset to our program.”
The game had a much faster pace out of the locker room for both teams. Each seemed to have an attack mentality with quicker cuts, penetration downhill and shots at the rim. Michigan started with two baskets by freshman Laila Phelia but then another scoring drought of over three minutes set in. A long jumper by Louisville’s Haley Van Lith gave her team their largest lead of nine with 2:46 to go in the quarter. The Michigan pressure kept them in it along with seeing the mismatches for Hillmon in their half-court offense. She hit two free throws to put the Wolverines within striking distance at 45-43 at the end of three.
“We’ve been an amazing defensive team, especially in this run. We did another great job tonight. Their pressure really wore us down. But our defense was outstanding until the end and it’s been something we can hang our hat on like we did the first three rounds of the tournament,” Barnes Arico said postgame.
The final 10 minutes opened with great energy from Louisville’s defense, starting with a jump ball turnover by Michigan and a 7-2 run. Louisville went over four minutes without scoring, hanging on to a 52-50 lead with 3:47 left to play.
“Defense, like Coach Walz told us before the game, is about heart. We really wanted this game, we wanted it bad, and we knew that if we didn’t pick up stops in the last five minutes that, we wouldn’t win the game. So it came down to how bad we wanted it,” Louisville’s Smith said afterwards.
After drawing a charge on Hillmon, sophomore center Olivia Cochran finished back-to-back plays at the rim to push the lead to six. The relentless pressure by Louisville finally took its toll, causing 22 Michigan turnovers on the night. The Cardinals punched their dance card with a late bucket by Cochran and free throws by Van Lith and senior Emily Engstler. Engstler had just five points on the night but was a beast on the glass, finishing with 16 rebounds. Van Lith led all scorers with 22 points and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Wichita Regional.
“I would like to congratulate Michigan, their entire team and staff on an outstanding year and such an incredible game. It was great college basketball game,” Walz said postgame with a net draped around his neck. “For our kids, really proud of every single one of them and excited to be continuing on with them.”
When it was all said and done, Louisville would not be denied and Michigan’s historic run came to an end. Walz and his team are headed to Minneapolis and the 2022 Final Four. “It’s electric. It feels like we have accomplished something amazing. We feel successful but not just there quite yet,” Engstler said.
Written by Missy Heidrick
I am a former shooting guard at Kansas State 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, 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!