Women's Final Four 2022: Emily Engstler finds winning fit with Louisville Cardinals

A 6-foot-1 senior forward, Emily Engstler was a disruptive defender and dominating rebounder for Louisville, one of three No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Jeff Walz is the king of quips. And he was all smiles Monday night during Louisville's postgame news conference after clinching a spot in the 2022 women's Final Four. But among the euphoria, the Cardinals' coach suddenly lowered his head and teared up. Senior Emily Engstler's words had just hit him in his heart.

Asked about how Walz had led top-seeded Louisville -- which faces fellow 1-seed South Carolina in the national semifinals in Minneapolis on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) -- to so much success as a program, Engstler made it personal. Having struggled with anxiety at times in her three years at Syracuse, Engstler said coming to Louisville this season was not just a fresh start. It was a chance to click with a coach who bonded with her immediately.

"He's meant the world to me," the 6-foot-1 forward said Monday after the Elite Eight win versus Michigan in the Wichita Regional. "I think it's been a difficult three years for me, and he was just somebody who took me under his [wing] and didn't really care who I was or where I was coming from on a mental level, and I really appreciate him. He's a good person."

Walz got up from his seat on the end of the podium, walked over, put an arm around Engstler and whispered something to her.

"I love you too, man," she replied.

"He's just really fun to play for," she then continued. "He lets you be yourself, and he protects you and you can trust him, and that's hard in this industry. So I'm grateful for him, and I'm going to do whatever I can to get him a national championship."

Louisville is in the national semifinals for the fourth time, and Engstler is a key reason. The native New Yorker, one of the most disruptive defenders in the NCAA tournament, has found a coach and a program who helped her thrive.

"She just does things you don't teach," Walz said. "It's who she is."

This Cardinals team reflects modern-day college hoops: There are three transfers in the starting lineup, including Engstler, who was part of the exodus last year from Syracuse along with South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso.

They were the Orange's top two rebounders in 2020-21, but after Syracuse's 83-47 loss to UConn in the second round of that national tournament, 11 players transferred. Coach Quentin Hillsman resigned in August after the school opened an investigation into allegations against him of bullying and inappropriate behavior.

Engstler says now of Hillsman, "I wish him the best, but I just don't think we really worked together too well. I think he knew that too. And we tried our best for as long as we could. But it just came to a point where it was time for me to move on, and sometimes that just happens.

"I think the best part of that time at Syracuse was the relationships that I made that I still have. Those friendships -- they're basically family now. But I think the hardest part was just being somewhere that maybe you didn't feel like you fit. That can definitely stress you out. It's a difficult headspace to be in."

Engstler, who grew up in Queens, New York, said she hit a low point during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. She struggled with energy, something she said she normally has in abundance. She felt out of shape and out of sorts. It was a hole she wanted to climb out of, and she focused on getting into the gym and working. She lost 40 pounds and also gained a new perspective.

"You surround yourself with the right people: small circles who really love you and want to see you do well," Engstler said. "I think I was a young kid who got hit with a lot of stuff at one time, because things weren't always how I thought they would be [at Syracuse].

"My family helped me get out of a bad spot. After losing weight, you don't right away really see yourself as someone who lost weight. It takes some time to really adjust your body and understand that, 'Hey, you did it, you're there.' I definitely think that I'm in a better place in my life, 100 percent."

Engstler had double-doubles in both her games against Louisville last season, including 21 points and 10 rebounds in Syracuse's ACC tourney semifinal loss to the Cardinals. So Walz had seen firsthand how good she was, and he began recruiting Engstler as soon as she entered the transfer portal.

"We played against her for three years," Walz said. "When she went into the transfer portal, the first person I talked to was Mykasa Robinson on our team, because Emily was going to impact Mykasa's playing time more than anybody else on this team.

"And Mykasa, without hesitating, was, like, 'Coach, I'm tired of guarding her for three years.' She would always get stuck having to guard her. She said, 'If we can get her, let's get her.'"

Engstler said the Louisville team was very welcoming, but she was far from New York for the first time. Engstler talks like a New Yorker -- direct and straightforward -- and she says what she thinks and how he feels.

Managing her emotions on the court is something she has had to learn to do, but off the court, Engstler doesn't mind showing them. Her tattoos speak to what is most dear to her, from the two hands with pinkies crossed that symbolize the bond with her sister (on her arm) to the basketball court she played on growing up (on her calf).

"It was lonely at first ... you don't just make best friends in a month or two," Engstler, who is averaging 11.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.7 steals, said of going to Louisville. "You just have to be patient with change. Good things occur when you let it come to you. And I think that after a while, we all clicked on the court and connected off the court."

Louisville sophomore guard Hailey Van Lith and Engstler say they are total opposites.

"Emotionally, Emily's just that tough New York City girl," Van Lith said. "Teams may try to beat us up and be physical with us, but I know she has my back, and she knows I have hers."

Fellow starter Kianna Smith said of Engstler and Van Lith: "They have a great relationship. We laugh at them a lot because they have an interesting banter. I'm glad they have each other."

Walz has been glad to have Engstler and Van Lith this season, and the Elite Eight victory over Michigan showcased that. Van Lith led the way offensively with 22 points, while Engstler anchored the defense with 16 rebounds and six steals. For the last five-plus minutes of the game, the Wolverines didn't score.

"She is obviously really disruptive," Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said of Engstler. "Her length is incredible, and she gets in the passing lanes, and it seemed like every big play they made, she was involved in."

Walz praised Engstler during the Wichita Regional, saying she reads passing lanes as well as any Louisville player since program legend Angel McCoughtry, a two-time Olympic gold medalist for the United States who now plays with the Minnesota Lynx. Walz also said that Engstler understands when and how to take risks defensively.

"Emily's instincts for the basketball are off the charts," he said. "She can read people's eyes. She might not get the steal every time, but she is making people start their offense a lot further out. There are a lot of things that Em does that are hard to prepare for if you're the other coach, because I don't even know what she's going to do. I tell her, 'Just play the game. Just be you.'"

Walz and Engstler enjoy razzing each other, but it is grounded in mutual appreciation. Engstler said she tried to not bring to Louisville the angst she felt at times at Syracuse. She has not wanted to talk much about it, preferring to move on. But it all hit her after the Elite Eight win. When asked why she thought Walz was moved to tears by what she said Monday, Engstler said it's because he understood a lot about her without her even telling him.

"It's hard to transfer after you've spent three years somewhere," she said. "Obviously, somewhere along the way, you weren't happy. I'm succeeding and flourishing at a program where he gave me a chance. We've spent a lot of days together working hard for this exact moment of going to the Final Four. And when you do that with someone, you just feel their emotions."