March 29, 2022
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Semi-Final Media Conference
JEFF WALZ: Just thrilled to still be playing. What a great ballgame we had last night against a really good Michigan team. Our kids really figured out a way to pull it out there in the fourth quarter. Defensively we were outstanding the last five minutes holding them scoreless, and then we showed some composure at the offensive end and scored the basketball when we needed, made some big plays.
Just thrilled for the kids. It's one of these things I say all the time as a coach, we get the opportunity to come back for another season. But the players, their seasons are counted.
For Emily Engstler and Chelsie Hall and Kianna Smith, this is their senior year, and for them to be able to get the opportunity to experience what a Final Four is like, you just can't put it into words. But we're looking forward to enjoying the day today to get some rest, flying up there tonight, and then get back to work tomorrow to get prepared for a very, very good South Carolina team.
Q. Question about two players: First one about Emily Engstler. Having seen her for several years at Syracuse, you kind of knew about what she does scoring and rebounding, but did you kind of foresee her kind of bringing an edge, maybe a fierceness to this team that seems to have rubbed off?
JEFF WALZ: Well, she always played with an edge even at Syracuse. Putting her in positions defensively how we play, we're more of a man-to-man, we like to move and trap at different areas of the floor, have really taken her strengths and shown them off.
She's so good at anticipating, reading the next pass, on the ball, help side. It's really been fun to watch, and she's been able to play, I think, a little bit more free at times at the defensive end, which has really been able to showcase her talents.
Q. With Hailey, I guess it was a little bit of a process for her to establish herself as a leading scorer. I guess it was expected of her but it took a while for her to step out. What was that like that you recall for her?
JEFF WALZ: Hailey is Hailey. She's been playing well all year. Everybody was concerned at the beginning of the year, she's not scoring. She was just missing shots. She was making shots in practice, was taking good shots in the games. They just weren't going in.
As I've said the whole season, it was never a concern for me because I watched her in practice. I watched them go in. It's when players aren't making them in practice and then that carries over to games when you start to get real concerned.
That was never the issue for her. As the season has progressed, we went a stretch where I think we had four games and had three or four different leading scorers. Hailey is playing some great basketball right now. She's been pretty efficient in a lot of our games. She handles the physicality well. She's able to get to the rim. She had a huge and-one for us in last night's game.
The kid is a baller. It is what it is. I consider her one of the best players in the country.
Q. I wanted to talk a little more about Hailey. When you talked back in December about not being worried, I presume you had a run similar to this in mind where she's 20 plus every game in the tournament. But two parts to that. One is what is it about her game that lends itself so well to the tournament play for her to be able to play this well right now? And to your point about the last question about finishing through contact, how is she able to do that as well as she does at her size?
JEFF WALZ: Well, I'll start with the last question there. Because she's strong. She's really worked hard in the weight room, conditioning. She's able to absorb contact. It doesn't knock her off balance. Then she can finish with her right or left hand.
That's one of the things when you get to this level of playing against other great players, you can't be just one-handed. You've got to be able to use both, and she does that. She's able to shoot a little bit of a fadeaway at times when she needs to to get a shot up over the defender.
But the bottom line is she's trained so hard ever since she was in high school. When she got here as a freshman, her freshman summer, she's one of the few freshmen we've had that's ever passed our conditioning test the first time she did it, and that's because of the training that she did before she got here. That's in the weight room, the cardio.
Because of that, she wasn't a year behind in the physical training. She's just continuing to get stronger, and that's why she's able to finish with contact even at her size.
Scoring the basketball, it's what the kid does. I mean, I watched her play several years in the summer. I flew out and watched her as many times as I was allowed her junior year during the recruiting process. Scoring the basketball has never been a problem for her.
Because of the amount of work she puts in, it doesn't guarantee you success. I say this to all of our players. All because you work hard, it doesn't guarantee you success. If we all studied for three hours for an exam, we're all not going to get the same grade. But the one thing I can tell you is it's going to give you a lot better opportunity to succeed than those that don't.
It's refreshing and encouraging to see someone who puts the time in to be able to have the success that she's having right now.
Q. When people go to the movies, a lot of times it's because of the star, and then the performance once they get there, it gets them going back and back again. This Final Four has so many stars, whether it's Hailey or Paige or Aliyah, Cameron, everybody. Can you talk about the development in women's basketball of these stars? Then as a second part, how much has corporate sponsorship and NIL helped bring these people to the public and grown the game because you now do have these recognizable stars?
JEFF WALZ: Well, I'll start with the second. I'm not sure the NIL and the corporate sponsors have really gotten to that point yet to where they're bringing the stars out. I think a lot of these kids that you're mentioning right now have a remarkable social media following, and that's where they're getting so much more of their traction out in the public, in the media, is through social media.
I think it's going to eventually get there. I know here in Louisville where we have a huge following for women's basketball, NIL is a big deal. It's going to be an even bigger deal as we move forward, as it evolves.
I think a lot of these players have been able to do it by the work that they do on the court and the way they perform.
Then just talking about all of them, we're getting -- our game is growing. So it's just not one school where everybody goes, one program where everybody goes.
Now players are branching out. Other universities like ourselves are investing in women's basketball. I think as that continues throughout the country, you're going to see more and more programs evolve and continue to get better. That's really what it's all about.
The parity in this year's NCAA Tournament, I know we've got three of the four 1 seeds are playing in the Final Four, but up to that point, how many great games have we had? How many upsets have we had? That's what's making our game that much better and that much more exciting.
Q. I want to ask you about one of your longtime fans who spoke to your team, I think, on Saturday, Mrs. Green, who has been there forever. She had that near-death experience. What was the message to the team, and what do they take from fans like her who have supported this group pretty much throughout their entire lives?
JEFF WALZ: Well, we've got a wonderful group of really, really supportive fans. Ms. Green is one that she actually came and spoke to our team during the regular season. She was supposed to come before the game to talk to them, but unfortunately she got there a little bit late, and then the next thing I know after I meet with my staff at halftime, she's in there talking to them at halftime.
I think she thinks she's on staff. She does a great job. Our kids love her.
Just the passion that she has for life, not just for our team but for life, and her experiences that she's been able to share with our players, as well as many of our fans, it means a lot to them. It's pretty special here when you see fans that have been following this program for 20, 25 years and the excitement that they get, the tears that you see in their eyes after last night's game when we get back to the hotel.
I've always said it. If you want to grow a fan base at the university you work at, your fans have to know they're a part of it. They have to know when you win, they win. And when you lose, they lose. They feel it, too.
That's one thing we've taken a lot of pride in here is to continue to just embrace all of our fans and make sure they know we're where we are because of them.
Q. You guys have been one of the top teams in the country all year but seem to have been flying under the radar a little bit even if you're a 1 seed. Everyone is talking about the other ones but not you guys as much. Is that something you embrace or are you like, hey, we've been pretty good all year, why aren't people saying we have a chance to win this as much as some of the other teams? The second is the transfer portal. You got Emily this year, and just what it means to have all these transfers coming in. Is this sort of a free agency like baseball that that's the way to build teams now is through transfers more than just trying to find kids in high school, or are they just a supplement to kids you recruit out of high school?
JEFF WALZ: Well, you know, the first one is, yeah, we've been pretty good all year. There's no question about that. I mean, it's not this year. You go back five years, I think we've won the third-most games of any women's basketball team in the country. If you go back 10, I think we're in the top five or top six. It's just a narrative. It's whatever you want it to be.
That's one of the things that we'll continue to grow with our game, I think, is our media, that they actually get out and look at the teams and look at the players instead of starting off the year with, hey, here's who we're going to run with, and they go with it.
Those are the things I think we do miss out on. If people haven't taken the opportunity to just watch what Emily Engstler and Hailey Van Lith have done and Kianna Smith for our team, you can only do so much. I can promote them, but it's a matter of when is our national media going to start to look at them all. But you and I both know it all comes down to hits. It all comes down to whatever you want to put on your site, how many hits is it going to get.
That's part of it, but our kids don't mind. We have a wonderful fan base here that absolutely adores them and loves them. And we're still playing. It's our fourth Final Four in 15 years. I think we've been to 70 Elite 8s. We aren't too bad.
It's going to be fun, and that's what it's all about. But at the end of the day you have to roll the ball out and play.
Extra motivation -- if that's what's going to motivate you, then we've got bigger problems, because just the opportunity to compete -- again, there's only four teams left playing -- is what should motivate you. I know that's really what motivates our players.
The transfer portal, we were very fortunate with Emily, and having played against her for three years, I knew what she could do. You get to know kids. We played them twice a year, so you get to know their personalities, you kind of get to know who they are. And then Chelsie Hall obviously as a grad transfer and a portal kid from Vanderbilt has been huge for us. She had an unbelievable first half last night.
It's part of what's going to take place from here on out. You're definitely looking to recruit high school players. That's our first place that we look at. Now you can look and say, hey, what voids do I have; what can I fill in; what areas can I look to increase or get stronger in?
I think that's what's going to happen.
Now, I do think you have to be real careful because you've got to make sure you're getting kids that are going to fit into your program, fit into your culture, and make sure they understand what you're trying to do. It's not all about them, and I think that's what's one of the things that we have here is we have kids that want to win, and it goes a long way.
I've said it before, when Emily went into the portal last year and we were going to call, the first person I talked to was Mykasa on my team. Mykasa Robinson was going to be the player who was impacted the most if Emily decided to come here because her playing time was going to be impacted.
The first thing that she tells me is, Coach, I'm tired of guarding her. If we can get her on our team, let's get her. Because these kids like to win.
I think it just speaks volumes for the character of the players that we have here, and their end game is to compete and compete for a National Championship.
Q. You mentioned how good you've been over the last 10 years, and it seems to me that this is probably four of the six best programs in the country. Used to be Stanford and UConn, but I'm wondering if now you feel -- it's interesting you've got two old ones and two new ones, South Carolina and you guys. Do you feel like you're there? Do you feel like you've built something that is a blueblood? And Dawn, as well.
JEFF WALZ: Yeah, I sure do. Our thing is we have to win that last game. That's what it all comes down to. I think for people to really think we're there, we have to win the National Championship.
The unfortunate thing for us was in '09 and '13, the two years that we got to The Finals, probably you could put those two UConn teams in probably the top 5 best women's basketball teams ever. Not just at UConn, I'm talking ever.
So part of it comes to when you get to the Finals, where are you playing, who are you, and for us it was just two bad years.
Then in '18 it was just an unbelievable Final Four in Columbus. It still hurts. It still stings. It's a Final Four you look at and you've got to get some breaks, you've got to get lucky here or there with a call, with a bounced ball that goes out of bounds and it comes back to you, things like that. But yeah, we've played in the last four Elite 8s, we've gone to two Final Fours. Yeah, I think we are. There's no question. I think South Carolina is, also.
Q. I wanted to ask you about how you developed your press. It's one of the more effective ones I've seen, and I wanted to know how you fine tune it to get it tournament ready?
JEFF WALZ: Well, again, I was very fortunate to work for six years with Paul Sanderford who was at Western Kentucky and then Nebraska, and now Paul is going into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, which is special for me because Paul is going to be recognized with the rest of the inductees I believe at the semifinal game. He's who gave me my start in this profession.
To be able to be playing in the Final Four the year that Paul is going into the Hall of Fame means the world to me. It's something that just really, really -- it touches my heart to know that we're going to get to share that moment.
He's who I learned the press from. It's something we haven't run the entire year, and to be honest with you, we haven't worked hours on it. You have to have players that have some instincts, that are willing to gamble at times. You can't press and be passive. Then you've got to have players that are willing to go hard, because it takes a lot out of you.
We've got that group right now. Our match-ups through the first four games were match-ups where we needed to press. We didn't want teams to just be able to get in their offense and do what they wanted, so we had to try to disrupt it as much as we could.
Q. I wonder on top of all the incredible players that you have on this team what it's going to mean to have Angel across the street with USA Basketball this week and through the weekend, and what it shows about this program that there's -- you talked a little bit about the recent history of success that this program has had, but there's really a lineage now of big-time players at this program.
JEFF WALZ: Yeah, you know what, I'm glad -- this is the one thing that I'm excited that I'm not able to be a court coach with the national team this week. It was something I was really looking forward to doing because I love when I get the opportunity to work with those great players and USA Basketball. It's something that means a lot to me. It's really special when you're representing your country.
To have Angel being a part of that and then hopefully we'll get a chance to see her and she'll stop by the hotel, it's great. She's the one that really took us to our first Final Four and put us on the map, and now we've got a bunch of them. Asia Durr, Dana Evans, Myisha, Shoni Schimmel. We've had a list of players now that have gone on, they've had great, great careers, and a lot are still playing.
But Angel obviously being a two-time Olympic gold medalist is at the top of our chart when it comes to success in the NCAA Tournament, and then with USA Basketball, as well.
Q. I saw at the end last night you kind of went out of your way to give a shout-out to Steph Norman and what she's meant to your coaching staff having been here the entirety of your time at Louisville. I was wondering if you could speak to her role in building this program.
JEFF WALZ: Yeah, Steph, it's been 15 years. She's everything to our program. She's a dear friend of mine. She recruits, she builds relationships, she's great X's and O's. Our Michigan game was her scout. She did a remarkable job of getting our kids prepared and presenting it to them on Sunday.
Yeah, she understands it. She knows how to coach. She knows how to recruit. She can build relationships. She's very, very good at her job. She's a great person.
At the end of the day, you have to be a good person if you want to have success in this profession, and Steph is as good as they come. And I'm just thrilled and honored that she has stayed here for these 15 years, and hopefully if something comes along and it's a head coaching job that she wants, hopefully we can get that for her. If not, hopefully we'll both be able to finish here and go out and enjoy life after basketball someday.
Q. Last night on the podium and the news conference, you had a couple of your players break down talking about the impact that you've had on them and their lives. What did that mean for you to hear that?
JEFF WALZ: Well, it's special. It's something you take a lot of pride in as a coach is building relationships with your players. It's not just on the basketball court but it's off the court. I say it all the time, we're just not trying to get these young women prepared to win basketball games, we're trying to prepare them for life, because life is tough. We all know it. Life is tough. You've got to make sure that we're doing our best to -- when they get out there, that along obviously with their parents who have done a remarkable job, that we've just done our little bit so they can be ready for everything that's thrown at them.
It meant a lot to me. It's why we do this job. It really is. That moment on that podium -- the win was great, the celebration was great. But that moment on that podium when those ladies said what they said, that was -- that superceded us winning that game last night. That's how much that meant to me.
Q. You've had coaching experience at Minnesota, which is a powerhouse in women's basketball, specifically with Lindsay Whalen who's a native of Minnesota. What does it mean to be able to come to this hotbed of women's sports this weekend and play in the Final Four considering she is a trailblazer in women's sports?
JEFF WALZ: Oh, yeah, it's exciting to be coming back. I talked with my wife and my kids, and I can show them my house I bought in Minnesota. I've actually -- I bought the house in a cul-de-sac. I still stay in touch with a few of the neighbors. They've emailed me. They're planning to come to the game.
Yeah, that one season that we had up there at Minnesota was one of the most remarkable years that I've been a part of in women's basketball. We went from playing in The Barn, and there was a pipe that busted, it froze over, then we had to move. We started in the Pav, my bad, that's when the pipe busted, then we went to The Barn and all of a sudden we're selling the place out with Lindsey Whalen, Janel McCarville and just a great group of players. And it was an awesome experience and I'm looking forward to getting back up there.
Q. Kianna Smith was on that 2018 Final Four team. How much of an asset will she be in terms of explaining the intensity and seriousness of the Final Four to your younger players who have not experienced a Final Four?
JEFF WALZ: Well, actually she was not, so this is a whole new group. Kianna actually transferred in the year after. We are all new at this, but we're excited about that as a staff. Talk about Steph Norman and my staff, we've been to four Final Fours with four completely different teams. We take a lot of pride in the fact that we've been able to build teams throughout the years that have been able to get to a Final Four.
Q. What have the student-athletes said? How have they kind of absorbed all of this, because it's about to be a wild weekend up in cold, cold Minneapolis.
JEFF WALZ: Well, we haven't even talked about it yet really. We had a great time last night. We jumped on a flight, we landed back here in Louisville at about 4:30 in the morning and I had to take my daughter to the airport for her 9:30 flight back to Charleston, South Carolina, and I'm sitting in the office now and I hope they're all still sleeping.
Q. I'm sure you've watched no tape of South Carolina in the two hours of free time that maybe you've had, but just your initial thoughts on them and Dawn and what you know about them and what you expect?
JEFF WALZ: Well, I mean, they're a great basketball team. Dawn does a fantastic job. I was fortunate enough to be an assistant for her with USA Basketball. She does a great job. She motivates her players. They play hard.
Aliyah Boston obviously is one of the best players in the country if not the best. We're going to have our hands full. We'll have an opportunity tonight to really start to watch some film and watch some games.
We're going to have to play our best, there's no doubt. At this time of the year there's no doubt, you've got to play your best or you're not going to win. We're looking forward to the opportunity because you can't win if you don't play the game. We're fortunate enough to still be playing.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports