Wichita, Con. – Olivia Cochran sat for the majority of the first half with the wrong problem. She responded incredulously when the whistle blew that she thought Klein Black was foul, and played knowing that a misstep in the final five minutes of Monday night’s game would ignore her.
But when No. 1 seed Louisville desperately needed her, the team’s defensive anchor, Cochran, broke the stubborn Michigan defense in the last three minutes and sent the Cardinals into the final four in three minutes. Defeated No. 3 seed Michigan 62-50.
When the Cardinals beat Michigan by 22 points at home in December, Louisville knew the rematch would not be as easy as the teams’ game in December. They knew that Michigan would better cope with pressure defense and that they would win a dog fight.
“We can see things going well for us, but this is March,” Louisville star guard Hailey van Lith said before the game.
It was actually a dog fight that took place in front of a pro-Louisville crowd at the Interest Bank Arena on Monday night in March, which played very close this time, but ended in a Louisville victory.
The Cardinals were led by Van Litt, who scored 22 points, and Chelsea Hall, who equalized the season-high with 15 points from behind a 3-point curve.
Michigan held the ball 52-50 2 points short when Laila Felia made an attacking mistake. “52-50, with the ball,” said Kim Barnes Ariko, Michigan coach. “I’m going to dream about it for the next eight months until we play again.”
The next few possessions are decisive. Emily Engstler of Louisville cut Cochran with three minutes to go to take a 4 point lead. Michigan thought it was a 3-point game, but Nass Hillmon was called up for a bad mistake on Cochran. Cochran received a nice driving basket in the next possession, and the Louisville defense closed the rest of the way to Michigan.
“That look was all over the fourth quarter and we couldn’t give it to her,” Van Lith said of Cochrane’s labs. “We rushed in and their pressure allowed us to speed up.”
Louisville led by 9 points in the third quarter, but each time the Cardinals came close to stopping the game Michigan found their way closer, usually on the free throw line. Michigan scored 11 more free throws than Louisville.
Monday night’s match was between teams with at least several similarities on paper. Both teams are trying to create chaos with intense pressure. At Hillmon and Engstler, both are guided by runky, defensive-first perspectives who can be selected in the first round of next month’s WNBA draft. Both Barnes Arigo and Jeff Walls have coaches who tell their players the hard way and tell them blatant truths, but they also seem to be liked by their players.
Players and coaches on both teams tried to underestimate the importance of the December game, but Barnes admitted that Arizo Louisville’s defensive intensity may be the highest his team has faced in all season. In the four months since that game, Michigan has been training frequently on how to fight the doubles and trio the All-American Hillmon commanded last season.
“It became an important aspect of our training program because they really looked at her and tried to get her out of the game program,” Barnes Arigo said.
Louisville’s pressure made Michigan flutter once more, with each Wolverine opener turning the ball at least three times. But Michigan did not melt like it did in Louisville in December. Hillmon lived on the free throw line, where he scored 10 of 18 points, and Belia and Maddie Nolan carried some attacking loads around the perimeter. Michigan also outscored Louisville, although Cochran only played 20 minutes.
Engsler was promoted to defense for Louisville, pulled down 16 rebounds and caught six thefts when he headed to the press. “It seemed like every great play they did, she was involved,” Barnes Arigo said. But Engsler fought aggressively, as he mostly settled for outfielders, shooting 1 in 9 and 1 in 5 from the field from the 3-point range.
Louisville are the last team to punch a ticket to the final four, where they face South Carolina, who have lost only twice this season and have beaten Grayton by 30 runs. Stanford plays Connecticut. The national semifinals will be held Friday in Minneapolis. The final is on Sunday.
After the final four appearances of Louisville 2018, it finally lost to second-placed Mississippi State. The loss to Michigan in the 8th round was the first time the team had advanced so far.
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