Louisville Cardinals hold off Michigan Wolverines to complete women's Final Four field

WICHITA -- With 5 minutes, 40 seconds left, Michigan's women's basketball team was within two points of Louisville with a trip to the Final Four on the line. But that's when the Cardinals' defense slammed the door shut on the Wolverines' hopes.

One ACC No. 1 seed suffered Elite Eight heartbreak Monday, but the other is headed to the Final Four.

Louisville, the top seed in the Wichita Regional, held off a gritty third-seeded Michigan team that was making its first appearance in the Elite Eight. With the 62-50 victory, the Cardinals head to their fourth Final Four; they lost in the championship game in 2009 and 2013 to UConn, and in the semifinals in 2018 to Mississippi State.

Louisville will face No. 1 overall seed South Carolina in Friday's first semifinal (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Target Center in Minneapolis.

"52-50 with the ball -- I'm going to have nightmares about that for the next eight months until we play again," Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said of the Wolverines being held scoreless for the last 5:40. "Louisville is a great team. They did what they do best: They forced us into some turnovers, which resulted in some easy points for them."

Indeed, defense has been what the Cardinals have done best this season. But they also have had a strong offensive tournament from sophomore guard Hailey Van Lith, who led the Cardinals with 22 points Monday.

She is the first Louisville women's player to have four consecutive 20-point games in the NCAA tournament. Van Lith was named the region's most outstanding player; Louisville is 11-0 in games in which she has scored at least 20 points.

"Our kids -- what effort they gave," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "We had to guard. We ended up turning them over 22 times, and coming up with 24 points off those turnovers. [Michigan] guarded extremely well in the half court as well. It was a tough game to score."

When the Cardinals and Wolverines met Dec. 2 in Louisville, it was no contest. The Cardinals dominated every aspect of that game, winning 70-48. And at least personnel-wise, there wasn't much change in the two teams nearly four months later. But Monday's game was very different.

While many eyes were glued to the double-overtime drama at the Bridgeport Regional involving No. 2 seed UConn and No. 1 seed NC State and won by the Huskies, Louisville and Michigan battled for a first half that ended with the Cardinals up 30-27.

And while it seemed like Louisville was in control for most of the game, the Wolverines were never far behind. Led by All-American senior post player Naz Hillmon, Michigan won the rebounding battle -- something the Wolverines didn't do in December.

Yet in the closing minutes, Michigan just couldn't find a way to crack Louisville's defense.

"I think the biggest thing that we wanted to do in that moment was really try to execute and not turn the ball over," Hillmon said. "They did a really good job of trapping at random points, putting a lot of pressure on ball handlers."

Hillmon finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds, her fourth double-double in this NCAA tournament. Many expect her to enter April's WNBA draft, but she has the option to return for a fifth "super senior" season. She didn't indicate she had made a decision yet following Monday's game.

"I've been just really putting a lot of my focus on what was at hand. I need a little bit of time to reflect on this," Hillmon said. "When you make it to the Elite Eight -- something Michigan women's basketball has never done before -- and in the pit of your stomach you know it was a ride that you want to take again, there will be some reflection, and I will be thinking about that."

As for Louisville, the Cardinals finished behind NC State in the ACC and were upset by a last-second shot by Miami in the league tournament quarterfinals.

"I think the Miami game pushed us to lock in just a little bit more when it comes to the fourth quarter," said senior forward Emily Engstler, who led Louisville with 16 rebounds and six steals.

Now the Cardinals are the last ACC women's team standing. The other three teams going to Minneapolis all have at least one NCAA title; the Cardinals are looking for their first.

"It's electric. It feels like we've accomplished something amazing," Engstler said. "I really think this team can go to a national championship and win it."