'They're leaving a legacy': Michigan falls short of Final Four, lose 62-50 to Louisville
Michigan players kept saying they were a different team than the one walloped by Louisville early in the regular season.
But in the end, the Wolverines just didn't have enough offensive firepower as they saw their magical NCAA Tournament run end in the Elite 8.
No. 1-seed Louisville defeated Michigan, a No. 3 seed, relying on a 10-0 run in the final minutes to win, 62-50, in the Wichita Regional final late Monday at Intrust Bank Arena. The Cardinals (29-4) will make its first Final Four appearance since 2018 and will face No. 1-seed South Carolina (33-2) in a national semifinal on Friday.
"We knew that Louisville was a great team, but they weren’t 22 points better than us, so we came into this game with a lot of confidence and knowing that if we played Michigan basketball we would get that win," said Michigan senior guard Danielle Rauch, who had four assists and three steals.
"I don’t think the final score is indicative of how that game went and how hard we fought and how much we put them on the ropes and applied pressure as much as we could. Some things didn’t go our way, but I think that’s important to recognize."
Michigan All-American Naz Hillmon, playing in what is assumed to have been her final collegiate game, had 18 points and 11 rebounds, her fourth double-double of the tournament. Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said after the loss she believes Hillmon will be a high first-round draft pick in the WNBA and have an immediate impact.
Leigha Brown, the Wolverines' second-leading scorer, did not play the second half of the game because of an injury. She had missed six games late during the regular season because of a lower leg issue.
The Wolverines, making their first-ever Elite 8 appearance, finish the season 25-7 and just shy of their Final Four goal.
Hailey Van Lith led Louisville with 22 points, Chelsie Hall had 15 and Kianna Smith 11. Emily Engstler had 16 rebounds.
Hillmon in the moments following the loss was asked her memories of her distinguished career, which include helping to lead Michigan to its first Sweet 16 appearance last year, and the Elite 8 this season.
"This is just a really special group and not just the one from this year but from my four years here," Hillmon said, choking up before continuing. "Just a group of people who really accepted me into their family through all the trials and tribulations of freshman year and just really supported me throughout this entire time here. There will be a lot of reflecting on the four years, because they were something special."
Rauch, a co-captain along with Hillmon, was emotional after the loss as she reflected on her college career. After playing sparingly early, she became a force for the team during the NCAA Tournament last year and secured her legacy this season.
"I didn’t know if I was ever going to play a minute at Michigan, and I just played in the Elite 8 as the starting point guard for this university," Rauch said. "That's something that's going to stick with me for a while.
"Playing next to Naz, an All-American. She’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player. I got to play with the greatest player in Michigan women’s basketball history, and she’s also my best friend, so thinking about the relationships I’ve created and the blessings I’ve had to even put on this Michigan uniform.
"We just played in the Elite 8. Michigan women’s basketball history is not written that way, and we made it that way. Leaving this four years and understanding the impact that our class had, I wouldn’t trade anything I went through to get to this point because it all made it possible for us to be here."
After Michigan’s last meeting with Louisville, when the Cardinals upended the Wolverines 70-48 on Dec. 2, envisioning an Elite 8 berth probably seemed unfathomable. But this was a far cry from that performance.
Michigan pulled within 52-50 with 5:42 left on a 5-0 run and a spot in the Final Four on the line. But that was as close as the Wolverines would come.
"(At) 52-50, with the ball, I'm going to have nightmares about that for the next eight months till we play again," said Barnes Arico, who has taken Michigan to five NCAA tournaments during her 10 seasons coaching the Wolverines. "Louisville's a great team. We knew it was going to be a game of runs. We had our share of runs. They did what they do best, they forced us into some turnovers, which resulted in some easy points (24) for them."
Louisville took over in the final three minutes and went on a 10-0 run to close out the game. Olivia Cochran made three straight baskets, the last coming with 33 seconds left. The Cardinals hit four free throws in the final 29 seconds.
“The biggest thing we wanted to do in that moment was really try to execute and not turn the ball over," Hillmon said when the game was 52-50. "They did a really good job of trapping at random points, putting a lot of pressure on ball handlers, so in that moment we wanted to execute whatever we wrote up and try to get a stop on the other end. Just something we’ve been trying to focus on the entire year but knowing that was a crucial moment to do it."
The Wolverines kept clawing back throughout the game. Louisville built a nine-point lead with 2:46 left in the third quarter, but Michigan went on a 9-2 run to pull within 45-43 with 34 seconds left when Hillmon made two free throws.
Louisville took a 30-27 lead into halftime after leading by as many as seven points with just less than five minutes left in the second quarter. The Cardinals had made 5-of-7 of their 3-pointers. Michigan, however, tightened the game after going on an 8-2 run to pull within 28-27 on two free throws by Hillmon with 59 seconds left.
Michigan started the game poorly, going 0-of-8 from the field before Hillmon scored on a layup with 4:48 left in the first quarter. But they overcame start with strong play the final three minutes of the first quarter.
The Wolverines took the lead briefly, 13-12, on a jumper by Emily Kiser with 1:55 left. At that point, they had made their last five shots during a 7-0 run. Louisville, which led by has many as six, emerged from a two-minute scoring drought with a 5-0 run the final minute of the half.
Now, with another momumental step taken by the program, Barnes Arico said this next team will have to build on what the seniors set in motion.
“They’re leaving a legacy. They left their mark," Barnes Arico said. "Now it’s the responsibility of the rest of us and continue on that path and learn from what they taught us, and that’s their hard work, their perseverance their never-quite attitude all of them have."