Louisville Clinches the Last Spot in the Final Four

WICHITA, Kan. — Olivia Cochran sat most of the first half with foul trouble. She reacted incredulously when what she thought was a clean block was whistled as a foul, and she played the final five minutes of Monday night’s game knowing that one miscue would foul her out for good.

But when No. 1-seeded Louisville needed her most, when its offensive stars could not get free, Cochran, the team’s defensive anchor, broke through a stubborn Michigan defense for three layups in the final three minutes to send the Cardinals to the Final Four , defeating Michigan, a No. 3 seed, 62-50.

Louisville knew the rematch would not be as easy as the teams’ game in December, when the Cardinals blew out Michigan by 22 points at home. They knew Michigan would better cope with the pressure defense, and that they would have to win a dogfight.

“We can look at it for things that went well for us, but it’s March,” Louisville’s star guard, Hailey Van Lith, said before the game.

It is indeed March, and what unfolded at Intrust Bank Arena on Monday night before a largely pro-Louisville crowd was a dogfight, one that played out much closer this time around, yet still ended in a Louisville victory.

The Cardinals were led by Van Lith, who scored 22 points, and Chelsie Hall, who tied a season-high with 15 points, mostly coming from behind the 3-point arc.

Michigan had the ball down just 2 points, 52-50, when Laila Phelia committed an offensive foul. “52-50, with the ball,” said Kim Barnes Arico, Michigan’s coach. “I’m going to have nightmares about that for the next eight months until we play again.”

The next few possessions would prove decisive. Louisville’s Emily Engstler found a cutting Cochran with just under three minutes left to take a 4-point lead. Michigan thought it was about to have a 3-point play, but Naz Hillmon was called for an offensive foul on Cochran as her layup went through the rim. Cochran scored a nice driving basket on the next possession after beating the press, and the Louisville defense shut down Michigan the rest of the way.

“That look was there the whole fourth quarter and we couldn’t deliver it to her,” Van Lith said of Cochran’s layups. “We were rushing and letting their pressure speed us up.”

Louisville led by as many as 9 points in the third quarter, but every time the Cardinals came close to putting the game away, Michigan found a way to draw closer, usually at the free throw line. Michigan shot 11 more free throws than Louisville.

Monday night’s matchup was between teams that, on paper at least, had many similarities. Both teams try to cause chaos with intense pressing. In Hillmon and Engstler, both are led by rangy, defense-first forwards who could be selected in the first round of next month’s WNBA draft. And both have coaches, in Barnes Arico and Jeff Walz, who make clear that they are hard on their players and tell them blunt truths, but who also seem to be loved by their players.

Players and coaches on both teams tried to downplay the importance of that December game, but Barnes Arico conceded that Louisville’s defensive intensity was probably the highest her team had faced all season. In the four months since that game, Michigan often practiced how to combat the double- and triple-teams Hillmon, an All-American last season, commanded.

“That’s become a staple in our practice plan because they really kind of went at her and tried to take her out of the game plan,” Barnes Arico said.

Louisville’s pressure once again flustered Michigan, as each Wolverines starter turned the ball over at least three times. But Michigan did not melt down like it did in Louisville in December. Hillmon lived at the free throw line, scoring 10 of her 18 points there, and Phelia and Maddie Nolan took some of the offensive load on the perimeter. Michigan also beyondbounded Louisville, though it helped that Cochran played only 20 minutes.

Engstler was as advertised on defense for Louisville, pulling down 16 rebounds and nabbing six steals as she led the press. “It seemed like every big play they made, she was involved in,” Barnes Arico said. But Engstler struggled offensively, shooting 1 of 9 from the field and 0 of 5 from 3-point range as she mostly settled for outside jumpers.

Louisville was the last team to punch its ticket to the Final Four, where it will face South Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed, which has lost just twice this season and just beat Creighton by 30. The other side of the bracket will see Stanford plays Connecticut. The national semifinals will be played on Friday in Minneapolis. The final is on Sunday.

Louisville’s Final Four appearance is its first since 2018, when it lost to the eventual runner-up Mississippi State. Michigan’s appearance in the round of 8 was the first time the team had ever advanced that far.

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