Wichita, KS – Olivia Cochran sat most of the first half due to serious problems. Her reaction was incredible 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 foul would hurt her forever.
But when No. 1 seed Louisville needed her the most, when her offensive stars couldn’t break free, Cochran, the team’s defensive anchor, breached a stubborn Michigan defense three times in the final three minutes to send the Cardinals into the Final Four. , defeating Michigan, seeded No. 3, 62-50.
Louisville knew a rematch wouldn’t be as easy as the two teams’ game in December, when the Cardinals outstripped Michigan by 22 points at home. They knew Michigan would handle the pressure defense better, and that they would have to win a fierce battle.
“We can look at it for things that have gone well for us, but it’s March,” Louisville star Healy Van Leith said before the game.
It’s already March, and what happened at the Entrust Bank Arena Monday night before the largely supportive crowd for Louisville was a fierce battle, which was much closer this time, but still ended with a Louisville victory.
Cardinal Van Leith, who scored 22 points, and Chelsea Hall, who topped the season with 15 points, led most of them coming from behind the 3-point arc.
And the ball fell in Michigan only two points, 52-50, when Leila Felia committed an offensive error. 52-50, with the ball,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Ariko said. “I’m going to have nightmares about that for the next eight months until we play again.”
The next few possessions will be crucial. Emily Engstler of Louisville found a choppy Cochran shot less than three minutes from the end of the game to take a four-point lead. Michigan thought they were about to get a 3-point play, but Nas Helmon was called up for an offensive foul on Cochran as the ball went through the edge. Cochran scored a nice driving basket on the next possession after his win over the press, and the Louisville Michigan defense shut down the rest of the way.
“That look was there for the whole last quarter and we just couldn’t deliver it to her,” Van Leith said of Cochran’s throw. “We were speeding up and letting their pressure speed us up.”
Louisville led by as much as 9 points in the third quarter, but every time the Cardinal came close to putting the game away, Michigan found a way to get closer, usually at the free throw line. Michigan fired 11 more free throws than Louisville.
The Monday night match was between teams that had a lot of similarities, at least on paper. Both teams are trying to create chaos with extreme pressure. In Hillmon and Engstler, they are both led by two attacking attackers in the first position who could be selected in the first round of the WNBA Draft next month. They both have coaches, in Barnes Ariko and Jeff Waltz, who make it clear they are tough on their players and tell frank facts, but also seem to be loved by their players.
Players and coaches on both teams tried to downplay the December game, but Barnes-Erico admitted that the intensity of Louisville’s defense was probably the highest her team has faced all season. In the four months since that game, Michigan often rehearsed how to fight double and triple teams that Helmon, the last season of the All-American, led.
“This became a staple of our training plan because they kind of went into it and tried to take it out of the game plan,” said Barnes Ariko.
Louisville’s pressure once again led to Michigan confusion, with every Wolverine converting the ball at least three times. But Michigan didn’t melt as much as it did in Louisville in December. Helmon lived at the free-throw line, scoring 10 of her 18 points there, and Phelia and Maddie Nolan took on some of the offensive burden on the periphery. Michigan also overtook Louisville, though it helped that Cochran played only 20 minutes.
Engstler was announced in defense of Louisville, pulling 16 rebounds and taking six steals while leading the press. “It seemed like every big play they’d done, I’ve been in,” Barnes Ariko said. But Engstler struggled offensively, shooting 1 of 9 from the field and 0 of 5 from a 3-point range as she settled mostly on outside jumpers.
Louisville was the last team to press their ticket to the Final Four, where they face South Carolina, seeded #1, who have lost only twice this season and beat Creighton by 30. The other side of the arc will see Stanford play Connecticut. The national semi-final games will be played Friday in Minneapolis. Final on Sunday.
Louisville’s Final Four appearance was their first since 2018, when they lost to final runner-up Mississippi State. Michigan’s eighth-round appearance was the first time the team had advanced this far.
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