What’s next for Louisville? Should LSU worry? Women’s NCAA Tournament first-round briefing


The first game of the 2024 women’s NCAA Tournament featured near-madness. No. 8 seed North Carolina led No. 9 seed Michigan State by 12 points with less than four minutes to play. Then, poof. UNC committed four turnovers, missed five free throws and allowed the Spartans to cut the lead to 1 with only eight seconds remaining. UNC still advanced, but perhaps the tight ending was a harbinger of what’s to come over the next three weeks. With wild finishes, timely shooting (and untimely mistakes), upsets could be aplenty.

As The Athletic did during conference tournaments, we’ll be providing briefings to keep you on top of the most important developments in the first and second rounds. Live blogs will follow starting in the Sweet 16. Here’s what you need to know about Friday’s first-round games:

As the bracket was revealed last Sunday night, LSU’s Hailey Van Lith seemed to make a prediction about her old school. If the Tigers and Louisville —the team Van Lith transferred from after three seasons — won their first-round games, they would meet in Baton Rouge in the second round. But Van Lith was caught on video appearing to say (in so many words) that she didn’t expect a reunion.

If social media lip-read correctly, Van Lith correctly prognosticated. Friday’s contest between No. 11 seed Middle Tennessee and No. 6 seed Louisville wasn’t a blowout, by any means. But after leading by 18 points midway through the second quarter, Louisville allowed the Blue Raiders to come back for a rare first-round upset in women’s March Madness. The 71-69 Middle Tennessee victory tied the third-largest comeback in women’s NCAA Tournament history.

Another kind of history was made, too — one that invites broader conversations about the Cardinals. Coach Jeff Walz was 14-0 in first-round games since taking over at Louisville in 2007. The program had been to the Sweet 16 in six consecutive tournaments and is the only team to play in the last five Elite Eights. Those streaks are over. Now questions will be asked about what went wrong and what’s next for the Cardinals.

GO DEEPER

No. 11 Middle Tennessee knocks off Louisville women

In some of their most marquee games this season, the Cardinals often were plagued by turnovers. They had 21 giveaways against UConn in mid-December and overcame a 22-turnover performance against Notre Dame in early February. Against the Fighting Irish in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, Louisville committed 19 turnovers.

After that 9-point defeat, Walz teed-off on his team. “If you don’t give a sh—, then it’s hard,” he said. “We think of new ways to turn the ball over. We have turned the ball over five straight games on an inbounds pass after a made basket. It’s special.” He facetiously suggested that fining a player $500 per turnover could lead to changes. “It’s lack of focus,” Walz said this week when asked about the main cause of such errors.

Against Middle Tennessee, enough adjustments weren’t made. Although Louisville finished with 14 turnovers overall, five of them came in the fourth quarter. Before a flurry of late baskets, Louisville had as many giveaways in the final period as field goals. “We haven’t been playing with effort like we should have in a couple games we lost this year,” senior forward Olivia Cochran told reporters on Thursday.

Effort was less of an issue on Friday (though it’s fair to wonder why a tournament team had such lapses to begin with). Instead, turnovers, foul trouble and sub-par 3-point shooting sunk the Cardinals. Louisville’s offense rushed shots as well, with a late 3-point attempt by Cochran (her sixth of the entire season) emblematic of some of Louisville’s woes.

Following the disappointing exit, Louisville’s roster almost certainly will look different next season. Guards Kiki Jefferson and Nina Rickards are grad students. Forward Olivia Cochran is a senior, though she could return for another season. Russell, another senior, was emphatic after the game that she’s returning. Walz added guard Jayda Curry in the transfer portal last offseason, but Curry’s production dipped significantly as she went from being a starting 15-point per game scorer at Cal in 2022-23 to a reserve role this year, averaging only 9.2 points in 21.9 minutes per game.

In an emotional post-game news conference, Russell backed Walz and vowed Louisville’s 2024-25 season wouldn’t end like this.

“I don’t care who is listening, I don’t care who is watching, we’re coming back,” she said. “(Walz is) a great — I want to swear, sorry — he’s a great f-ing coach and that’s why we’re coming back. I don’t care what other people have to say, I don’t care what coaches are saying, other teams. Recruits, if you want to win, come here. I don’t care. This is a different season, a different team. We’re going to hold our team to a higher standard. We’re leaders here, that’s what’s going to happen next year. That’s a promise.”

Walz is bringing in two top-100 recruits and will likely search the portal for more talent. As the winningest coach in program history, Walz signed a contract extension in March 2022 that runs through the 2028-29 season. Of course, the nearby Kentucky opening has led to speculation about whether he’d make a move.

Walz dismissed those rumors before the NCAA Tournament. “People can put whatever up on social media and it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Nobody has contacted me. I’ve been here for 17 years. I plan to retire here, or I plan to get fired here. It’s one of the two, and I’ve said it for years.”

Friday’s loss won’t spur either action. But it will force Walz and his staff to zero in on why the Cardinals lost focus to begin with.

– Ben Pickman

Should LSU be worried after squeaking by Rice?

Never one to mince words, LSU coach Kim Mulkey was honest in her postgame ESPN interview as she assessed the third-seeded Tigers’ 70-60 win over No. 14 seed Rice on Friday. “That was a bad performance today,” she said.

LSU advanced despite committing a season-high 24 turnovers. Twice, Mulkey said she saw her players demonstrate “a lot of selfish play.” Star forward Angel Reese committed a team-high six turnovers, while Mikaylah Williams and Van Lith each had five giveaways. Mulkey said LSU’s performance wasn’t indicative of the Tigers’ recent play. That’s true — it was coming off an SEC tournament championship game appearance — but the 10-point victory margin against Rice belied just how close LSU was from being upset. With 1:58 to play, the Owls trailed by only 6 points.

The Tigers are looking to become the first repeat champions since UConn in 2015 and 2016. But what’s especially concerning is that Rice didn’t play its best game either and was still within striking distance. The Owls, who earned a spot in the field of 68 after a Cinderella run through the AAC tournament, scored only 6 first-quarter points. They shot only 35.4 percent from the field and 29.6 percent on 3-pointers. Though their effort was valiant, they amassed 18 turnovers and were whistled for 25 fouls.

Two seasons ago as a No. 3 seed, the Tigers eked out a 6-point first-round victory against Jackson State in Baton Rouge. LSU lost to Ohio State in its next game by 15 points. No LSU player who suffered that loss is still on the roster, but Mulkey hopes to avoid a similar fate when LSU faces Middle Tennessee on Sunday. “Maybe they got it out of their system,” she said of LSU’s problems.

The Blue Raiders have won 20 consecutive games, are among the nation’s top-10 defenses in limiting opponents’ points per game, and they’re one of the best 2-point defensive teams. In the regular season, they defeated Power 6 schools Tennessee, DePaul and Houston, and kept it going with the first-round victory against Louisville.

Mulkey said she was trying to keep her composure and stressed that at this stage of the season, the goal is simply advancing. In that regard, Friday’s goal was accomplished. But she also issued a warning about what the weekend could bring. “We better fix it before we play Middle Tennessee,” she said.

-Ben Pickman

Has Ohio State regained momentum?

Ohio State wasn’t overlooking Maine coming into Friday’s first-round game in Columbus. After ending the season with consecutive losses, the second-seeded Buckeyes needed a good showing to build tournament confidence.

Maine was a strong defensive team this season, giving up just 56 points per game, but the Buckeyes forced 22 turnovers and scored 80 on the Black Bears, the first team to reach that scoring milestone against No. 15 seed Maine.

Ohio State still has a long road to go to reach its goals, a game against No. 7 seed Duke in the second round is first, but Friday’s performance was Ohio State near its best. Cotie McMahon got going early. Jacy Sheldon was playing like an All-American and had 19 points despite shooting just 2 of 7 from deep. Celeste Taylor (who had six steals), Taylor Thierry, Madison Greene and others all made big contributions.But Ohio State’s only going to go as far as its depth takes it.

The Buckeyes looked to have regained some confidence after a quarterfinal exit in the Big Ten tournament and a loss at Iowa right before that. If this win is the start of the Buckeyes returning to their early 2024 form, they could be a tough out for tournament opponents.

– Cameron Teague Robinson

(Photo of Jeff Walz: Andy Hancock / NCAA Photos / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)





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