Louisville rides Van Lith’s energy to women’s Final Four

Hailey Van Lith’s energy level never seems to wane, mainly because the Louisville guard seems to do everything at full speed.

Maybe Van “Lift” would be a more appropriate spelling for what she does for the Cardinals heading into Friday’s women’s Final Four showdown against top-ranked South Carolina.

Van Lith has split defenders with quick bursts to the basket, and faked others by stopping on a dime to spot up and shoot. She has outworked taller opponents for defensive rebounds and picked off passes to create opportunities at the other end of the floor.

At the end of games Van Lith has looked completely drained walking off the court. But she has walked away happy during the NCAA Tournament victories and has the Cardinals within two wins of their first national championship.

“I actually train for this, I want this moment and I actually condition after games if I feel like I didn’t get enough minutes in,” Van Lith said Wednesday. “I want to be in the best shape of my life and I want to be able to outrun people all game and just overwork them. You might be able to guard me for two quarters, but the next two or mine because I’m in better shape.”

Top-seeded Louisville (29-4) is back in the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four for the first time since 2018 thanks to four consecutive 20-point performances by the 5-foot-7 sophomore from Wenatchee, Washington. The stretch includes 22 in Monday night’s 62-50 Wichita Region final victory over Michigan in which Van Lith earned MVP honors.

As a sophomore, Van Lith has ratcheted up her play this season. After a promising rookie debut as the Cardinals’ No. 3 scorer behind All-American Dana Evans and Kianna Smith, she leads Louisville at 14.5 points per game to go with 3.4 rebounds. Van Lith was a first team All-ACC selection along with good friend and teammate Emily Engstler.

Since scoring just eight points in the Cardinals’ Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament loss to Miami, Van Lith has averaged 21.5 points on 47% shooting while playing 34.5 minutes. During their 68-59 second round NCAA Tournament win over Gonzaga, she scored 10 points to spark a 15-3 third-quarter run, celebrating a 3-pointer by throwing three fingers in the air while appearing to pirouette toward the cheering home crowd.

“Honestly, it’s because I love basketball,” she said, explaining her emotional reactions after a big play. “That’s just the passionate side of me.”

Van Lith’s intense play reflects the impression late Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant had on her. Van Lith attended his camp while in high school and her Instagram page — with nearly 700,000 followers — features several pictures of her with Bryant and his daughter Gigi. Both Bryant and his daughter flew to Washington to catch one of her games.

Bryant and his daughter died in a helicopter crash in January 2020, and Van Lith embraces the NBA great’s “Mamba Mentality” by being passionate and working for daily improvement.

Workouts with her father, Corey, helped toughen Van Lith. Those close to her emphasize her relentless practice ethic to correct any little flaw in her game, even after a good night.

“She just has this motor that just never stops,” said Brent Darnell, who coached Van Lith at Cashmere High School in Washington. “She just wants more and more and more and more. I’ve never seen a kid, never seen any athlete that pushes themselves as hard as her.”

As confetti fluttered down after Monday night’s clinching win, Van Lith was asked what Bryant would tell her in that moment. She smiled and responded saying the former Laker would give her profanity-laced advice to point out her job isn’t done. The interview clip went viral.

“I told no lies,” Van Lith said. “Maybe next time I’ll censor the second cuss word.”

When Van Lith was going through a slow scoring start during which makeable shots for her weren’t falling, neither the Cardinals nor coach Jeff Walz were concerned about her pulling it together.

“That was never the issue for her,” said the 15th-year coach, who’s entering his fourth Final Four with Louisville. “We went through a stretch where I think we had four games and had three or four different leading scorers.

“Hailey is playing some great basketball right now. She’s been pretty efficient in a lot of our games. She handles the physicality well. She’s able to get to the rim. … The kid is a baller.”

And apparently she is a well-liked baller. That seems apparent from Van Lith’s social media popularity, which has helped her cash in on name, image and likeness (NIL).

She signed a partnership deal last summer with sports representation firm Octagon and has endorsement deals with sportswear maker Adidas and Dick’s Sporting Goods, among others. Opendorse, an NIL company that provides technology to the athlete endorsement industry, ranks Van Lith’s Instagram value second to UConn’s Paige Bueckers at $37,231.71 per post among men’s and women’s basketball players in this year Final Four.

Right now, though, all Van Lith is looking for is a way to beat the Gamecocks.

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More AP coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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