Overlooked Louisville seeks 1st title, as SC awaits in semis
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — This is Louisville’s fourth trip to the national semifinals in 15 seasons under coach Jeff Walz, a feat that has ensured every four-player in the program under his direction has had the opportunity to experience the Final Four.
Yet the Cardinals are the team in this year’s quartet of powerhouses that has generally been the most overlooked, a reminder of the oligarchy still lingering in a sport seeing more parity every season.
No college coach, of course, would ever pass up an opening to play the underdog role. Walz recounted hearing on a talk show this week that the Connecticut-Stanford winner was bound to face South Carolina in the NCAA championship Sunday night, causing him to jokingly wonder if the host mistakenly figured the semifinals only featured three teams.
“We actually have four, and we are the fourth,” Walz deadpanned.
Louisville, one of three No. 1 seeds in the 68-team field to make it to Minneapolis, plays No. 1 overall seed South Carolina in the first game at Target Center on Friday night.
“At least let’s roll the balls out and let’s see what happens,” Walz said. “They might end up being true, but I’d give us a fighting shot at it.”
The Cardinals (29-4) will present plenty of challenges for the Gamecocks (33-2), starting with guard Hailey Van Lith, as intense a player as there is in this tournament, and forward Emily Engstler, a disruptive force on defense who can put the ball in the basket, too.
“If they want to sleep, let them sleep. We’ll come in and do us, and we’re going to do us to the best of our ability,” said Van Lith, who has hit the 20-point mark in all four tournament games.
South Carolina has also been to four Final Fours in 14 years under coach Dawn Staley, but the Gamecocks won the 2017 title. That’s one reason for the prominence gap, however slight, between the two programs.
“I hear people say, ‘What are you going to do to get over the hump?’ What hump is there to get over, besides winning a national championship?” Walz said Thursday. “I know it would be wonderful, but we’re not going to define the past 15 years on one game.”
Walz is one of 11 coaches all-time to reach four or more Final Fours.
“I’m pretty damn proud of what we’ve done here, and we’re going to continue it,” Walz said.
The Gamecocks were the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25 poll from start to finish, with AP Player of the Year Aliyah Boston leading the way, but they’re carrying ample motivation of their own after the way they lost last year to eventual champion Stanford in the semifinals.
Trailing by one point in the waning seconds, Boston turned a midcourt steal into a pass to Brea Beal, whose shot bounced off the rim. Boston grabbed the rebound, but her putback at the buzzer was also off the mark.
“Good, bad, or indifferent, it’s a part of who we are, like it was supposed to happen,” Staley said. “But we’re not really motivated by that. We’re motivated by what we’ve been able to do this year and the habits that we’ve been able to create and perform night in and night out, and we just hope that our habits are much stronger than our opponents on any given day.”
Much like Stanford and UConn, the best programs stay that way by emphasizing the quality of the process rather than obsessing over the result.
“Whoever it is that’s standing, the last team that’s standing on Sunday night, it’s divine order. I truly believe that. So if it’s not us, it’s not us. We’ll get another shot at it when it’s our turn,” Staley said.
SHIPPING UP TO BOSTON
Boston, the 6-foot-5 forward, poses the same type of daunting matchup that Walz and his Cardinals team nine years ago faced against Baylor and star Brittney Griner in their upset of the prohibitive favorite in the Sweet 16. Louisville was runner-up to UConn in 2013.
“We know we’re going to have to make sure we’re focused on her and know where she is at all times, but she’s also got pretty good teammates she’s playing with,” Walz said. “So we’ll have a plan for tomorrow night, and then if plan A doesn’t work, we’ll go to plan B, and then plan C if needed, and there is no plan D.”
More AP coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25