The No. 3-seeded Michigan women’s basketball team is headed to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history. But to make any more history this March, the Wolverines will have to conquer No. 1-seeded Louisville Monday night.
The matchup between the two teams is highly-anticipated. The Cardinals trounced Michigan, 70-48, on Dec. 8 during the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, when Louisville suffocated the Wolverines’ offense and forced them into 24 turnovers. The Cardinals also outrebounded Michigan and brought a level of defensive intensity the Wolverines had yet to face.
But both teams have put Dec. 8 behind them.
Instead, they’re looking towards a physical game between two of the premier teams in the country.
“It’s great that we’re elite and one of eight teams playing in the country right now,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “It’s unbelievable. But we’re not done, and we’ve got a chance to keep on going. It’s one game at a time, and anything can happen in one game. And I know Louisville beat us by 20 in December and I know Louisville has beaten us the last four times I was a part of it. I know all those things.
“But it’s one game. And, you know, who knows what can happen tomorrow if Michigan comes out and plays like we’re capable of playing.”
Monday night’s tilt is expected to be a defensive battle. With Louisville ranking 28th in the country in turnovers forced, the Cardinals love to drop into full-court presses and half-court traps. Louisville center Emily Engstler, who leads the team in blocked shots and steals, is the heart of the Cardinals defense, deft at jumping in passing lanes and helping off her player. Monday, Louisville will likely focus on pressuring Michigan’s guards and speeding up the game’s tempo.
“The way Emily Engstler can affect the game and roam around and block people’s shots and has a great nose for where to trap,” Barnes Arico said. “That was probably the first time this year that (senior forward) Naz (Hillmon) faced that double and triple team. … Louisville’s defensive intensity is probably the best that we have faced all year.”
For the Wolverines, their defensive identity is everything. Digging into its motto, “the hardest working team in America,” Michigan has held each of its opponents to under 50 points thus far in the tournament. Zeroing in on getting stops will help the Wolverines on the offensive end, as they previously struggled to score against the Cardinals’ aggressive defense.
On the offensive end, Louisville relies on a very balanced scoring attack that troubled Michigan in December. Guard Hailey Van Lith has maintained a hot streak in the tournament so far, notching over 20 points in all three games. Engstler poses a strong threat in the paint as the Cardinals’ second-leading scorer and lead rebounder. The Wolverines will have to key in on Louisville’s top players, forcing someone else to take over the scoring.
Michigan’s offense will likely continue to run through Hillmon, its first-team All-American. Hillmon has continued to impress throughout the tournament, notching over 20 points in two of the three games. Where the Wolverines might struggle, though, is in their outside shooting. With their lead 3-point shooter, junior guard Maddie Nolan, going just 1-for-9 from behind the arc against South Dakota, Michigan will have to improve from deep for any chance of countering the Cardinals’ scoring barrage.
“Knowing that they’re going to throw a couple of different looks, whether that be coverage or a single-player or double- or triple-teams (is important),” Hillmon said. “Being aware of the defense they’re throwing or throwing multiple bodies where my teammates are going to be. And I think that’s definitely something we learned from the last time we played them. So in-game adjustments and what they have drawn up, (Louisville) coach (Jeff) Walz is crafty at throwing different things, so being aware of what I have coming at me.”
Reputations will be at stake in Monday’s matchup. For the Wolverines, it’s the program’s first opportunity to advance to a Final Four. For Louisville, it’s a chance to uphold a winning legacy by advancing to its fourth Final Four in history.
And for both, it’s a rematch for the ages.