Louisville grabbed the Last Spot in the Last Four

Update: South Carolina beat UConn to win a second national championship.

WICHITA, Kan. – Olivia Cochran sat for most of the first half with foul trouble. He couldn’t believe it when what he thought was a clean block was whipped as a foul, and he played the final five minutes of Monday night’s game knowing that a miscue would hurt him for good.

But when No. 1-seeded Louisville needed him badly, when its offensive stars couldn’t escape, Cochran, the team’s defensive anchor, penetrated Michigan’s tough defense for three layups in the final three minutes to send the Cardinals into the Final Four, defeating Michigan, a No. 3 seed, 62-50.

Louisville knows the rematch isn’t as easy as the teams game in December, when the Cardinals beat Michigan by 22 points at home. They knew Michigan would better deal with the pressure defense, and they needed to win a dogfight.

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

It’s actually March, and what happened at Intrust Bank Arena on Monday night before the mostly pro-Louisville crowd was a dogfight, one that played much closer this season, but still ended in a victories in Louisville.

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

The Michigan ball fell just 2 points, 52-50, when Laila Phelia committed an offensive foul. “52-50, with the ball,” said Kim Barnes Arico, Michigan coach. “I’ll dream about that for the next eight months until we play again.”

The next few properties can be decisive. Louisville’s Emily Engstler found a cutting Cochran with just under three minutes left to take a 4-point lead. Michigan believed it was almost a 3-point play, but Naz Hillmon was called for an offensive foul on Cochran as his layup went past the rim. Cochran scored a nice basket to drive the next possession after beating the press, and the Louisville defense shut out Michigan the rest of the way.

“That look was there the whole fourth quarter and we couldn’t give it to him,” Van Lith said of Cochran’s layups. “We hurried and accelerated their pressure.”

Louisville led by as much as 9 points in the third quarter, but every time the Cardinals almost pushed the game away, Michigan found a way to get closer, usually at the free throw line. Michigan fired 11 free throws than Louisville.

Monday night’s game is between teams that, on paper at least, have a lot in common. Both teams tried to create chaos through intense pressure. With Hillmon and Engstler, the two are led by rangy, defense-first forwards who could be selected in the first round of the WNBA draft next month. And both have coaches, Barnes Arico and Jeff Walz, who explain that they are tough on their players and tell them straightforward facts, but who also seem to be loved by their players.

Players and coaches on both teams tried to downplay the importance of the game in December, but Barnes Arico admitted that the intensity of Louisville’s defense was probably the highest his team faced of all time. In the four months since that game, Michigan has consistently practiced how to fight the double and triple-team led by Hillmon, an All-American last season.

“That became a staple in our practice plan because they went to him and tried to take him out of the game plan,” Barnes Arico said.

The pressure on Louisville once again confused Michigan, as every Wolverines starter returned the ball at least three times. But Michigan didn’t melt like it did in Louisville in December. Hillmon lived on the free throw line, scoring 10 of his 18 points there, and Phelia and Maddie Nolan took some offensive loads on the perimeter. Michigan also outrebounded Louisville, though it helped that Cochran only played 20 minutes.

Engstler as the defense announced for Louisville, pulled in 16 rebounds and grabbed six steals in his press lead. “Like every big game they play, he’s involved,” Barnes Arico said. But Engstler struggled offensively, shooting 1 of 9 from the field and 0 of 5 from 3-point range because he usually settled on outside jumpers.

Louisville was the last team to score their ticket to the Final Four, where they will face South Carolina, the No. 1 seed. Stanford played Connecticut. The national semifinals will be played Friday in Minneapolis. On Sunday the final.

Louisville’s Last Four appearance was its first since 2018, when it lost to last-runner-up Mississippi State. Michigan’s appearance in round 8 was the first time the team had advanced so far.

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