Two moments in the fourth quarter showed how this just wasn't Louisville's night as the Cardinals lost 72-59 to South Carolina in Friday's first semifinal.
Louisville guard Hailey Van Lith raced down the court, drove the lane and attempted a layup, hoping to trim the Gamecocks' lead to seven points. The ball spun off the rim, however, and South Carolina's Aliyah Boston grabbed the rebound with 6:32 remaining.
Ninety-six seconds later, Cardinals forward Emily Engstler, a warrior all night with 18 points, nine rebounds and four steals, fouled out, leaving Louisville without its best threat to score. The senior went to the bench, buried her head in her hands and sobbed, knowing a chance at playing for a national championship was slipping away.
"We just missed shots,'' Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "We had some great looks, and some that went in and out in crunch time.''
Van Lith, who scored 20 or more points in each of Louisville's four tournament games leading up to the Final Four, finished with nine points, though five came in the game's final 2:56. She shot 4-for-11 from the field as South Carolina worked to deny her.
"They did a really good job of making it hard for me to even get the ball,'' Van Lith said. "They clearly were not going to let me get touches, and they face-guarded me the whole game. When I did get shots, I was a little passive because of their length.''
While Van Lith's scoring was limited, she contributed nine rebounds and played all 40 minutes.
Engstler scored 16 points in the first three quarters but picked up her fourth foul with 4 seconds left in the third quarter with the Cardinals trailing by six points. She didn't agree with the call.
"Yeah, wasn't my favorite thing,'' she said. "I'm going to be honest with you. It could have been, in my head that moment, the last game of my college career. I'm not going to change the way I play for a specific reffing situation. I'm an aggressive basketball player.''
Afterward, Walz and his players reflected on a season that ended with a 29-5 record.
"It was an absolute joy to coach them, to watch them grow as people and watch them grow as a team,'' Walz said.
Engstler, who transferred from Syracuse after the 2020-21 season, relished the experience of her one season with the Cardinals.
"What a ride,'' she said. "You don't realize where you're really going when you decide to transfer for one more year. … Yeah, we lost this game, but I don't think we gave up, not one player. We should all leave this arena and Minneapolis with our heads held very high.''