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Mike Lopresti | | January 7, 2022

Louisville women's basketball continues stellar run behind stout defense

Hailey Van Lith's leadership has Louisville eyeing a deep tournament run

Another game, another Louisville opponent with an inactive scoreboard. This one ended up 81-39, with Pittsburgh the beleaguered victim. Not to be confused with the 25 points the Cardinals allowed Bellarmine, the 30 for UT Martin, the 32 for Cal Poly, the 48 for bigger fish Michigan and Georgia Tech.

Louisville is 13-1, has beaten four ranked teams, and is listed this week No. 2 by the coaches and No. 3 by Associated Press. It doesn’t take much searching to find the big reason why. Few assignments are more arduous this season in women’s college basketball than a night against the Cardinals defense.

RANKINGS: Power 10 | Latest NET Rankings | AP Poll

Consider poor Pitt: The Panthers shot 26 percent and committed 35 turnovers. Louisville had 19 steals — or five more than Pittsburgh had baskets.

"It’s what we’ve been doing all year,” coach Jeff Walz mentioned afterward.

That’s the stat sheet, nodding in agreement.

The Cardinals have held eight opponents under 50 points. Four times they have given up one field goal in an entire quarter. They’ve caused trouble for the best of them — 24 turnovers by Michigan, 22 by Georgia Tech, 21 by Kentucky. All were ranked. Kentucky pre-season All-American Rhyne Howard managed only nine points against Louisville. Michigan preseason Big Ten player of the year Naz Hillmon had only 12, with as many turnovers as field goals.

For the season, Louisville is allowing only an average of under 48 points a game and 33.3 percent shooting. The Cardinals have a 21.7-9.4 scoring gap per game in points off turnovers. “We like to have our offense come from our defense,” guard Chelsie Hall was saying.

Opponents can’t say they weren’t warned. This was Walz back in early December, after Louisville had rolled over Michigan 70-48:

“We have to be known as a defensive team. We’ve got to disrupt things. We can’t let people just get into their offense, make passes wherever they want. We’ve got to get them outside of their comfort zone, outside of their operating area.”

COVID-19: Joint statement from Men’s and Women's Basketball Committees regarding schedule disruptions

And so they have. Which is how a team can be 13-1 and in the penthouse of the rankings, with nobody averaging more than 11.2 points. Only five times this season has a Louisville player scored more than 16 points in a game. The Cardinals barely eke into the top 100 nationally in scoring. Two-time ACC player of the year Dana Evans is gone, with her 20-point average and 71 3-pointers. They still roll, most of the damage done at the other end of the court.

“The one thing I’ll say about this team, and I’m hoping it’s going to continue, is no matter how we perform offensively, it’s not impacting us at the defensive end,” Walz said. “We’re a really mature team in that aspect. I’ve coached a lot of teams in the past, where if you’re struggling offensively then you become bad on defense because you’re frustrated. We have not let any of our offensive struggles lead to us being bad at the defensive end.”

Not that there hasn’t been the occasional splash of offense. The Cardinals put away UConn with 27 points in the fourth quarter. Emily Engstler beat Georgia Tech with a layup in the final three seconds.

The lone defeat was the season opener, 61-59 in overtime to Arizona, who hasn’t lost yet. But Louisville has won 13 in a row since, the conquests including Connecticut, Michigan, Kentucky and Georgia Tech — all currently ranked. There is nothing on the resume to suggest the Cardinals won’t be prime contenders in March.

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Well, about that.

The Associated Press top-10 is a reliable barometer of national title chances. All 39 champions in the history of the NCAA tournament have come from there. Included in the current top-10 are No. 1 South Carolina, Stanford, Tennessee, Maryland and Texas; all past winners. Throw in No. 11 Connecticut, and that group owns 25 of the 39 trophies.

Then there are the hungry bunch still searching. No. 6 Indiana and No. 8 Michigan have never been to the Final Four. No. 4 Arizona and No. 5 North Carolina State have been once, Arizona losing a 54-53 heartbreaker to Stanford last April in the title game.

And Louisville. Walz, who started out coaching in middle school, has built an unrelenting power with 10 Sweet 16 trips, six Elite Eights, and marches to the championship game in 2009 and 2013. Before he arrived in 2007, the program had none of the above. He has put together this roster from hither and yon, with 11 states and three countries represented on the roster.

The Cardinals have been ranked No. 2 at some point five seasons in a row. They edged into No. 1 for the first time ever last winter. They are 135-16 over the past five seasons.

There’s about only one new thing left to do. And with this defense, they could.

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