WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The women’s basketball program that Jeff Walz has built at Louisville over the past 15 years resembles in so many ways the juggernaut Pat Summitt built at Tennessee, with one important exception: winning a national championship.
The Lady Vols piled up eight of them. The Cardinals are 0 for 2 in title games.
The programs are set to meet in Saturday night’s NCAA Tournament regional semifinals, where a resurgent bunch of Lady Vols led by Kellie Harper — one of Summitt’s brightest stars — will be trying to return to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2016 and a plucky bunch of Cardinals will be trying to make it there for the fourth consecutive tournament.
“Expectations are good. I’ve learned if there’s not expectations for your ballclub, you don’t normally have a job very long,” said Walz, who has led the Cardinals to the Final Four three times, with the last trip coming in 2018
“But we’re in a situation where I still think people wonder how we keep winning,” Walz continued. “How do we keep doing it? How do we keep getting ourselves to a point where we can get a 1-seed, or we’re competing in the Sweet 16 or the Elite Eight? Our players respond to that. They respond to the pressure.”
They haven’t been under too much pressure yet in the Wichita Region, where No. 3 seed Michigan faces No. 10 seed South Dakota in the other semifinal Saturday. The top-seeded Cardinals (27-4) blew out Albany before cruising past Creighton in the second round, setting up a date with the fourth-seeded Lady Vols at INTRUST Bank Arena.
“We’re playing a program that’s obviously got a ton of tradition,” Walz said.
For its part, Tennessee (25-8) is trying to return to its rightful place atop the women’s college basketball pecking order. The Lady Vols went to 18 Final Fours under Summitt (not including the old AIAW days), but have not been to a national semifinal since 2008 when they won her eighth and final national championship.
The program fell into a period of mediocrity under Holly Warlick, leading to her firing in March 2019 and Harper’s return to Knoxville. COVID-19 short-circuited the 2020 postseason and the Lady Vols didn’t make it past the second round last season, but Harper has them once again thinking about playing on the game’s biggest stage.
“It’s more of just embracing the opportunity that we have, making it to the Sweet 16,” Lady Vols star Tamari Key said. “I know we are really excited for this opportunity — every opportunity — we get to play another basketball game.”
The Wolverines (24-6) breezed through American and No. 11 seed Villanova to reach the semifinals and a most unexpected opponent: South Dakota. The Coyotes (29-5) had never made it through the first round before knocking off Mississippi last week, then they did one better by dumping perennial powerhouse Baylor in the second round.
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While the Coyotes may be the loveable underdogs, the Wolverines haven’t had a whole lot more NCAA Tournament success. They lost to Baylor in overtime in last year’s NCAA Tournament in their only other Sweet 16 trip.
“I think we’ve been the underdog. That started last year when we made our tournament run,” Michigan guard Leigha Brown said. I think that’s when we’re the most successful. I think we’re the best when we’re playing with a chip on our shoulder.”
Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith has one of the sweetest shots in the nation in the tournament, scoring 41 points through the first two rounds. She could go head to head with Rae Burrell, who had 19 points for the Lady Vols in their win over Buffalo.
The Wolverines feature Naz Hillmon, the Big Ten player of the year, who is averaging a near-double-double with 21.3 points and 9.6 boards. South Dakota will counter with Summit League player of the year Chloe Lamb.
It remains a longshot that Tennessee will have leading scorer Jordan Horston available this week. She dislocated her left elbow in February and doctors said at the time it could take up to eight weeks for the injury to properly heal.
To say that Louisville guard Kianna Smith was destined to play basketball would be an understatement. Her grandfather, Fred Smith, starred at Hawaii before playing for the Milwaukee Bucks. Her father, John, played at UNLV and now coaches at Cal Poly. Her uncle, Steve, was an assistant for the Connecticut Sun and older brother Jamal played at Fullerton.
“When I was young I didn’t really like it. I brought coloring books to my dad’s practices,” she said Friday, “but as I got older and watched the game a lot more, I enjoyed the bond it created between me and my dad. I think it shaped me as a player.”
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