SEATTLE — By this point, Louisville resume of women’s NCAA Tournament success should have the Cardinals getting mentioned in the same breath as South Carolina, UConn and the other powers in the sport.
Instead, Jeff Walz feels like the Cardinals are regularly a team picked to get bounced early in March Madness.
“We’re not always the sexy choice, we’re not the one that everybody’s like, ‘Oh, you got it, this is a shoe-in, put them in your bracket, pencil them in,’” Walz said. “We’re normally the one that everybody’s like, ‘Oh, I think they’re going to lose in the first round, they might get beat in the second round,’ and then they’re pissed that we keep winning.”
Walz and the No. 5 seed Cardinals will play in their fifth straight regional championship game facing high-scoring Caitlin Clark and No. 2 seed Iowa in the Seattle 4 Regional on Sunday.
The Elite Eight has become the expected destination for Louisville, even in a season like this one where that didn’t seem a likely result. After a rough start to the season that didn’t match preseason expectations, the Cardinals (26-11) have found their stride winning 11 of their past 14 with the only losses during that stretch to Notre Dame and Virginia Tech.
The Cardinals outlasted upstart Mississippi in Friday’s Sweet 16 and continued the quest for a second straight Final Four and fifth overall.
“You work your whole life for to be playing on a national stage in the Elite Eight with a packed house. You can’t trade it for any other scenario,” Louisville standout Hailey Van Lith said. “So it’s going to make or break you. That type of pressure, it forms diamonds or it crushes you. So we’ll see which side we come out on.”
Louisville’s streak of five straight Elite Eight appearances is the second longest active streak in the country behind only UConn and its run of 14 straight Final Four trips.
Iowa (29-6) would love to start the kind of run Louisville is on. For all their success with Lisa Bluder as head coach, the Hawkeyes have just one Elite Eight appearance in the past 30 years. The Hawkeyes reached the regional finals in 2019 only to get overrun by Baylor.
Iowa’s only Final Four trip came in 1993.
“I think that experience is a great teacher, and so definitely I think that experience that they have had is on their side,” Bluder said. “Each game you play, a little bit more pressure mounts, right? I think when you have been there a lot, you know how to handle that a little better. So I think that’s to their advantage.”
But while Louisville has more experience being in this spot, Iowa has Clark.
The first-team All-American had 31 points in Iowa’s 87-77 win over Colorado in the Sweet 16. The victory put aside two years of disappointment after the Hawkeyes lost in the round of 16 and round of 32 in the previous two NCAAs with Clark on the floor.
“This group hasn’t been to the Final Four or the Elite Eight for us, but we’ve had the opportunity to play with each other for three years, so it’s not anything we’re going to shy away from. We’ve been in plenty of big games,” Clark said. “But I think that’s the biggest thing about (Louisville), they have experience being in this situation, they’re really well coached.”
IN THE PAST
Plenty of attention will be on the clash between Van Lith and Clark, even if they are not likely to be matched up on each other very often. The pair have history playing together for USA Basketball, including the under-19 team that won the FIBA World Cup and was coached by Walz.
“I played the point guard spot with her on USA Basketball. We were roommates for a while on part of the trip, so I know her pretty well,” Clark said. “A great person, but also a really good basketball player.”
The Hawkeyes aren’t completely void of experience reaching this point of the tournament. Iowa’s Monika Czinano was a freshman for the Hawkeyes when they reached the regional finals in 2019. Czinano was a bench player for the Hawkeyes then and played just 2 minutes in the loss to Baylor.
On Sunday, she could be a difference maker on the interior for Iowa. Czinano has scored at least 14 points in 10 of the last 11 games.
“She’s phenomenal. I just love the demeanor she plays with. She’s a competitor, she’s fierce, but she puts a smile on, she has fun, and I love that about players,” Walz said.