The Louisville Cardinals were the forgotten no. 1 seed, the team that received the fourth slot by default after Baylor lost in the Big 12 championship game. But the Cardinals validated their place on the top line by doing what No. 1 seeds are supposed to do: advance to the Final Four.
Louisville stifled No. 3 Michigan defensively, forcing the Wolverines into 35 percent shooting from the field and 22 turnovers in the Elite Eight matchup. That dominance on the defensive end, combined with another 20-plus-point outing from Hailey Van Lith carried the Cardinals to a 62-50 win. Louisville reaches the national semifinals for the fourth time in school history, all of which have come since 2009 under head coach Jeff Walz.
Michigan was playing in the Elite Eight for the first time, and the reward for the Wolverines wasn’t just a matchup against a single-digit seed for the first time in this tournament, but a date with the No. 1 Cardinals.
Both teams wanted to apply pressure fullcourt to the opposing ball handlers, but only the Cardinals kept that intensity up in the half court. When Louisville finally started making shots, the Cardinals began setting the press, and Michigan was a little flummoxed setting up its offense. Laila Phelia, one of the heroes of the Sweet 16 win, was rushed attacking the basket, and Leigha Brown couldn’t get going either.
The key to settling the Wolverines was getting the ball to Naz Hillmon as much as possible. At first, that was Hillmon getting offensive rebounds off missed shots. Once Maddie Nolan broke through by making a couple threes, that opened up just enough space for Hillmon to get the ball with deep post position. Michigan also put Hillmon in some high-low actions with Cameron Williams and Emily Kiser, and had their All-American big cut in the half court to break through Louisville’s pressure.
Hillmon found her offense, but no one else could aid her from the perimeter, and it was impossible to get the ball to Hillmon in a scoring position on every possession, especially since her range doesn’t extend more than a few feet beyond the basket. Hillmon finished with 11 rebounds and 18 points, the lone Wolverine in double figures.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals were more able to get into their actions. Chelsie Hall and Kianna Smith beat their defenders off the dribble to score in the paint, finishing with 15 and 11 points, respectively. When Louisville forced giveaways, Hailey Van Lith was a menace in transition, scoring many of the team’s 24 points off turnovers. She also had her isolation chops going for pull-up jumpers in the half court.
The only time the Wolverines were able to slow down the Cardinals offense was in the fourth quarter when they started showing high on screens and trapping the ball handler, as they did against South Dakota in the Sweet 16. Louisville had a scoring drought of 5:13 in the final period as the Cardinals guards got pushed further away from the basket. Michigan was unable to capitalize as Louisville’s defense kept up — the no. 1 seed was content to let the Wolverines fire away from deep so long as the paint was unavailable, and Michigan couldn’t make the Cardinals pay for that strategy.
Louisville eventually figured out how to beat the traps, using Olivia Cochran as a release valve with the Wolverines bigs up high. And whenever there was a loose ball or a 50-50 play, Emily Engstler was there to secure possession for the Cardinals. She had 16 rebounds and four assists, more than making up for her 1-of-9 shooting from the field.
Engstler will need to score more in the team’s next matchup against South Carolina, but for now, Louisville can celebrate a trip to Minneapolis while Michigan caps its most successful season in school history.