WICHITA, Kan. – Michigan’s first loss of the season was a doozy.
The Wolverines were blown out 70-48 at Louisville on Dec. 2, their second-largest margin of defeat.
Nearly four months later, Michigan has a chance to avenge that loss on a grand stage. The third-seeded Wolverines (25-6) face the top-seeded Cardinals (28-4) in the women's Elite Eight on Monday night with a trip to the Final Four at stake.
Michigan’s players say much has changed since that rough night when the Wolverines committed 24 turnovers and shot 37% from the field.
“It was early on in our season and we were still figuring some things out,” Michigan guard Danielle Rauch said. “Playing at Louisville is a really difficult thing to do. So we definitely were shocked in that situation. But I think we’ve grown a lot since then and gone through a lot of different things throughout this season to prepare us to play them again."
Michigan's Naz Hillmon was held to 12 points — nine points under her current average. The first-team All-American said it was the first time she saw such intense defensive pressure.
“We really figured out, you know, if people are doubling and tripling me, how to put people in their best spots to be a contributor to our team and focusing on slowing down the game for us sometimes,” Hillmon said.
Louisville has moved on, but knows Monday won't be easy.
“I would say we just can’t take that game into account," Louisville guard Hailey Van Lith said. "We can look at it for things that went well for us, but it’s March. Everyone is going to put their best foot forward, everyone is going to fight.”
The Cardinals also have something to prove, having reached the Final Four three times and the national title game twice but never the championship.
“As a senior, obviously, getting to go to a Final Four would be everything,” Louisville guard Kianna Smith said. “I would say our goal is to win it all. We don’t want to sell ourselves short. We want to do something that Louisville has never done before and that’s win a national championship, but we’re not looking too far ahead. We’re taking it one game at a time and enjoying all the little moments together.”
Hillmon is a dynamic interior presence who averages 21.2 points per game on 59% shooting for the season. In three NCAA Tournament games, despite getting extra defensive attention, those numbers have spiked to 22.7 points on 69% shooting.
“We talk about All-Americans and Players of the Year, and Naz Hillmon is still playing, and she is playing her best basketball right now and she’s doing things that are absolutely off the charts,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “I just think she doesn’t want it to end, and she knows at any second it can. ... Almost the bigger the game, the more important the game, the more she is able to turn it up. It’s really a special thing.”
Emily Engstler is a key part of Louisville coach Jeff Walz's disruptive defense. Engstler led the ACC with 2.59 steals per game and made the league's all-defense team.
“I think she is a difference maker,” Barnes Arico said. “You have a 6-2 (listed at 6-1) athlete that she is and can move so well, can block shots so well, can play and probably defend any position one through five. I think he (Walz) gives her the freedom to roam around and to be able to double, to be able to be a pest, to be able to just go run at somebody.”
Engstler also averages 12.0 points and 9.2 rebounds per contest.
Michigan guard Laila Phelia scored the go-ahead layup in the final minute against South Dakota on Saturday — an answer to requests by Barnes Arico and teammates that she become more aggressive.
“So once I knew the clock was running down, at that point, I knew I needed to attack the basket," Phelia said of the shot that put Michigan ahead by two. “And I felt like my teammates gave me a lot of confidence right before I did end up going in, and they told me, now is not the time to hesitate.”
Louisville forward Olivia Cochran was hit in her left eye in the game against Tennessee on Saturday. A day later, she sat at the podium sporting a black eye that was swollen and mostly closed. She said she will wear a mask against Michigan.
“I’m doing fine,” Cochran said. “The game was pretty physical, but that’s just the sport.”
Cochran averages 8.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while shooting 51% from the field.
VAN LITH LAUNCHING
Van Lith has been exceptional lately. She’s averaging 21.3 points per game during the NCAA Tournament in three games — up seven points from her overall season scoring average. She had 23 points and six assists against Tennessee.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: twitter.com/CliffBruntAP