Here’s the transcript of today’s pre-Sweet 16 presser via ASAP Sports:
THE MODERATOR: Good morning, welcome to Wichita. We’re going to start off this morning with Jeff Walz, the head coach of Louisville.
I’ll turn it over to coach. Opening comments.
JEFF WALZ: I appreciate that.
Just first wanted to say thank you to everyone here in Wichita. It’s been great. It was a seamless and easy trip. Everyone at the hotel has been extremely friendly and helpful. Everyone here on-site has been great also. Just wanted to make sure I started off with that.
We’re excited to be here. You play your entire year to try to continue to advance on in the NCAA tournament. We’re going to have the opportunity tomorrow to play a very, very good Tennessee team. Our kids are excited for it.
The time of the year where everybody’s good. There are no bad teams. You’re going to have to play your best if you want to advance on. So we’re excited to be here and looking forward to the challenge tomorrow.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll open it up to questions.
Q. How do you account for Tennessee’s size? They’re deep, have a lot of size inside and even on the perimeter.
JEFF WALZ: Well, it’s one thing I’ve said about our league the entire year. We’re fortunate in the ACC to have a ton of different styles to play against. You have Virginia Tech with Kitley at 6’5”, Cunane at 6’4”. We faced size before.
Now, we haven’t faced someone like Tamari Key who is going to really want to own the low block and try to really bang around and score as close to the basket as she can. That’s going to be a challenge. We’re going to have to do the best we can to get her away from the basket. Easier said than done. I think that’s what every team has tried to do.
We’re excited for the challenge. Our guards are going to have to rebound as well. It’s a game where we’re playing a team that rebounds the ball as well as any team we’ve faced all year. We’re going to have to have everybody. I mean, it’s going to have to be from Chelsie to Olivia to Kianna. Everybody is going to have to contribute at the rebounding end.
We’re going to just have to do everything we can to try to stretch the floor, make their size have to guard us all over the court.
Q. Sometime in the last 10 years your program went from the party crasher mentality, to you get here, a No. 1 seed, expectations are higher. What has that been like for you to deal with? Do you have to talk to players any differently when the expectations have changed so much over time?
JEFF WALZ: Yeah, it’s been a change, which is a good thing. Expectations are good. I’ve learned if there’s not expectations for your ball club, you normally don’t have a job very long. So the longer we can keep these expectations being high, means we’re having success.
It’s still one of these where our kids follow what’s going on. When the draw came out, the bracket came out, everybody picked Baylor to advance on, which is good. That’s kind of the way our kids like it.
We’re in a situation where I still think people wonder how we keep winning, how do we keep doing it, how do we keep getting ourselves to a point where we can get a 1 seed or we’re competing again in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight. We’re just fortunate — I’m fortunate to have a great staff. Been able to keep the staff around as long as I have. Now we have a few of ‘em that are moving on to be head coaches. Sam Purcell going down to Mississippi State. We’ll find someone to replace Sam. It’s what we’ve done.
Our players respond to that. Our players respond to the pressure, to the expectations. It’s what it’s all about. It’s fun. It’s going to be a great game. We’re playing a program tomorrow obviously that’s got a ton of tradition. We’re trying to continue to move on in this tournament.
Q. You mentioned your staff there. There is a former staff member of yours who is on the other sideline in this game tomorrow. What will it be like to see Samantha Williams over there?
JEFF WALZ: That’s Benedict Sam, she’s a traitor. I have to watch out for her now (smiling). I called her after they won on Monday night, called her Tuesday, of course she won’t answer the phone. I sent her a text. I said, I see how it is.
No, it’s going to be great. I’m excited for Sam. Sam really did a great job when she left here, went to Eastern Kentucky, did a really good job at Eastern Kentucky as head coach for two years. Then got this opportunity to go back down to Tennessee to be an assistant.
She’s done a great job. Once the game starts, we’re both trying to win. But it’s really been good to see her have success, as well. It’s going to be fun.
Q. Tennessee is a team that really has a chip on its shoulder right now with all the injuries they’ve had. When you’re looking at an opponent like that who’s had to overcome so many things, and they’re still here, what does that say to you?
JEFF WALZ: They have played extremely hard. It’s been impressive. They have had a bunch of injuries throughout the year. They’ve been able to get a few of ‘em back to playing.
But overall this time of the year once you get to the Sweet 16, everybody’s good. It’s not an accident that you make it this far. We have the utmost respect for their program, for their staff. We know it’s a big challenge.
To me at this time of the year, there’s no upsets either way. Everybody’s really, really good. So we’re looking forward to it. We know that they’re going to come out tomorrow and try to win, too. So I expect a great basketball game.
Q. You talked about your staff. LaMont is a Wichita native. Being able to come back here, what do you think it means to him?
JEFF WALZ: Well, it’s nice for LaMont to be able to come back and see his family and see friends, have a bunch of ‘em come to the game. I know he’s excited about that, as well.
It’s one of these things anytime you’re fortunate enough as you’re playing, all of a sudden you see a site, might be where someone’s from, it’s always nice to be able to get back so they can see family and friends.
Q. You said a minute ago that people wonder how you keep winning. Your recruiting base is not local. You have not been in the ACC all that long. You had success before that. What factors do you see as the constants that have enabled you to maintain this level?
JEFF WALZ: I think it’s how we do things. When players come here, I’ve got players that are currently here that show ‘em the ropes. We have a culture that I really believe is outstanding, where if you come, if you’re not going to plan to be in the gym extra and work on your game, I don’t have to say anything because you’re going to stand out, you’re going to be the odd one out.
Our players that are currently here love to get in the gym. They all have goals and dreams and aspirations. Of course, winning a national championship is one of them, but playing professionally also for a lot of ‘em is one.
They’ve been able to see what Dana Evans, Asia Durr, Jazmine Jones, Kylee Shook, Myisha Hines-Allen, what they’ve had to do to get to where they are.
When you’re able to have a culture in place where incoming freshman or a transfer can come in and see how it’s done, then I don’t have to do a whole bunch now.
When we first got here 15 years ago, we had to change that. We had to change expectations, make sure kids understood what they had to do. We talk to the kids all the time, what are they willing to sacrifice.
You can enjoy college, but you know what, you might have some friends that are going out every Thursday night. Unfortunately you probably can’t do that. You might have to pick and choose which Thursday night you’re going out.
If you want to be great, then you got to spend time in the gym. We’ve been very fortunate to get players that that’s what they want to do.
So it’s part of having a great staff, a great support staff, that allows us to continue to have the success that we’ve had. I promise you, it might look easy, but it’s not easy. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of hours.
Q. Olivia has played a big part in what you’ve done, especially on the boards. She doesn’t have the numbers that Emily might have. Does a really good job of boxing out the biggest post players. How big will that be against Key, however long you go in this tournament?
JEFF WALZ: She’s going to have a big impact on this ball game tomorrow. Every game we played, I mean, you’re right, she might not have the 18 points, the 20 points, but she’s doing the dirty work.
I’ve got a ton of respect for O because she’s always the one who’s getting the biggest players, the tallest player, the post player assignment, and she’s never backed down from it. I don’t expect that.
She’s going to have to work hard. I mean, you know, I’ll put it to you how my six-year-old said it the other night. We were laying in bed, she was talking to grandma. They were talking about the game. Luce was on the phone. She said, I’m just going to tell you, O is going to have to work her ass off.
All of a sudden I got the yell in the house going, Dad, dad. I come in, it’s like Lucy, tell Dad what you said.
I just said, O is going to have to work her ass off in this game.
She’s right. When my six-year-old can give me the scouting report, I think it’s pretty evident. It’s only my house where my six-year-old and then my eight-year-old is watching the game and she’s concerned about the weak-side help. It’s impressive.
Q. What does LaMont mean to your staff? For people who don’t understand what a video coordinator does day to day...
JEFF WALZ: He’s not only our video coordinator, he does a ton of our graphics. He has a dual role as a graphic designer as well as breaking down all our film, getting all the player clips we need.
He played in college so he understands the game. When he’s watching something, if he sees something, he’ll pull it out to me. When we played Oregon down in The Virgin Islands, he’s the one that came up, hey, I watched Central Florida do this to Duke and I think we can do the same thing. That’s when we put Kylee Shook on the point guard. He understands the game.
It’s great when you’ve got a video person who is breaking some things down for you that also can come in my office and share ideas. He’s very valuable to us. He’s a hard worker, a really good person. We’re hoping to keep him around for as long as we can.
Q. Hailey Van Lith kind of struggled at the beginning of the season, has come on strong for you at the end of the season. Talk about her growth during the season, what she’s meant to your squad.
JEFF WALZ: I’ve said it all the time, I don’t think she struggled, she just missed some shots. To me if a kid is struggling, they’re not playing the game well, they’re not rebounding the ball, they’re not defending.
She just didn’t make some shots. She was making them in practice. I’ve said this for a few months now. When I get the opportunity to go to practice every day, she’s making ‘em in practice, it doesn’t concern me. The ball is going to go in. It’s just a matter of to see it go in in a game. That’s really what took place.
Everything else, the defense, the rebounding, the leadership was all there. She just might not have been making shots. But I’d never say that she was struggling because I didn’t really see that.
But for us now, she’s obviously really confident shooting the basketball. She’s scoring from all three phases. She’s shooting the three well, the pullup, she gets to the rim, then she’s able to step up and knock free throws down.
More importantly for us, she’s going to have to continue to rebound the ball like she has been because when she can do that, then it really gives us another dimension that we have to continue to have.
If our guards can rebound tomorrow, that’s going to help our bigs out.
Q. You’ve had superstars on several of your teams, including your Final Four teams. This team has a lot of great players, but maybe nobody that’s elevated to that level, whether that’s because they’re misperceived or whatever. How does that make this team a little bit different in terms of the diffusion of responsibility? Secondly, the success of the ACC so far in this tournament, to have four teams still alive.
JEFF WALZ: Well, the first one, I think what makes this team is unique is we have kids that could be superstars if they were on a different team. What I mean by that is, if they didn’t have other really good players.
I mean, Hailey could go someplace right now and score 25 a night if she wanted to. But she wants to play with other really good players. You have Hailey, Kianna, Chelsie, Olivia. We don’t necessarily have to have one person go for 25 in order for us to win. We’ve got four or five that can get 25.
That’s what I think makes us so hard to guard is you have to guard everyone on the floor. Hailey has been playing extremely well, shooting at a high percentage. Kianna Smith has been shooting the ball well. Emily at both ends of the floor. Olivia goes four for five in our game the other night. She’s being very efficient.
It’s what you see when you get really good players that buy into playing together instead of just going someplace where you’re going to be the person.
So I do believe we have superstars on this team, but it’s been a lot of fun to watch ‘em play together.
Then your second question? Oh, the ACC.
Yeah, it doesn’t surprise me. I think it surprises a lot of people that didn’t follow the ACC, even a few of them that followed it. I think it surprises them.
But our league’s really, really good. Virginia Tech gets beat by Florida Gulf Coast. I just thought it was a bad matchup. Kenny does a great job. Virginia Tech is extremely talented. Then it’s just one game.
But overall I thought our league had a chance to get nine teams in, you know, but we end up with eight. Then to have four advance on to the Sweet 16. It’s pretty much what we’ve done the past few years.
For some reason at the beginning of the year our league’s not given the credit that it deserves. Even with top 25 polls, I’m a top 25 voter, if you don’t start off in the top 25, it’s hard to get up into it sometimes.
I’m always a big fan of I wouldn’t even come out with a top 25 poll until two or three weeks into the season so you can really see who is good, who’s not, then start from there.
If you start in the top five, it’s hard to drop out of the top 25 unless you’re just really bad because you’re going to win enough games. You might drop to 10 or 12, but then you go back up a few spots.
I think the ACC is big-time basketball and I’m excited for all four teams that are still left.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you. That’s our time. We will have the student-athletes here in a moment.
I’d like to welcome everyone. We have some student-athlete representatives here from Louisville. Emily Engstler, Kianna Smith, and Hailey Van Lith.
We’ll open the floor for questioning.
Q. Kianna, how does it feel not to be in the middle of those two? Two, back in the Sweet 16, what is this feeling like?
KIANNA SMITH: It’s great not being in the middle of these two. Maybe I should have been, they might fight each other over here (smiling).
It’s awesome being back in the Sweet 16. Thankfully we’re not in a bubble this year. It’s a little bit different feel. But, yeah, we’re excited, ready to get going, get into the arena and get some shots up.
Q. Coach Walz was in here a minute ago and said people wonder how people keep winning. You’re from New York, Washington, California, what drew you to Louisville, and why do you think the success has been sustained for so long?
EMILY ENGSTLER: I mean, I obviously went to Syracuse first. I wanted to stay home, which was a big thing for me. When I entered the portal, the biggest thing to me about Louisville was, when you have a program that’s won for that long, it catches your attention. Somebody is doing something right obviously. The coaching staff just blew me away with the way they do things. I wasn’t very familiar with Kentucky, but it seemed gritty, it seemed exciting, the way they played defense, how they described all the relationships.
It really is a program of its word. I think that’s really hard to find. I’ve been in the recruitment process before college, I’ve been in it again when I went in the portal. People lie a lot. I got a lot of honesty when I came to this program. It’s meant the world to me. That’s something that definitely drew me in.
HAILEY VAN LITH: I came here because I wanted to win. I think everyone else did, too. That’s why we win when we come here because everybody wants to win. So, simple.
KIANNA SMITH: Like Hailey said, I think Louisville has a winning culture. Also I think the assistant coaches take a lot of pride in skill development. I think players get better here. So even if you came from another school or you started at Louisville, I think players develop. That’s why they continue to win.
Q. What is it like to watch the relationship these two have? Hailey and Emily, what made y’all become such good friends and jokesters with each other?
KIANNA SMITH: They have a great relationship. It’s kind of funny, we laugh at them a lot because they have an interesting banter between each other.
I’m glad they have each other. Yeah, they’re super close. It’s awesome to see.
HAILEY VAN LITH: I actually don’t like her, for the record (laughter).
EMILY ENGSTLER: When we win the national championship, I have it written down on a document that she has to say “I love you” to the national TV. You’ll admit it soon, Hailey, because we’re going to a chip.
No, it kind of just happens. You’re in college, you live with these girls, you’re around them all the time. Hailey, she’s outgoing, but she was like a little less talkative and I’m extremely talkative.
HAILEY VAN LITH: We’re the complete opposite, that’s what she was trying to say.
EMILY ENGSTLER: Yes.
The thing that brought us together, when I’m just chatting and she has nothing left to say, and it leaves the room less awkward. But no.
Yeah, we’re very close. I’m really grateful for our relationship. I think the team in general is very close which allows for individual relationships to grow as well, so...
Q. Emily, you lead this team in rebounds. Olivia has such a big role in that by boxing out a lot of the biggest posts. How important has she been?
EMILY ENGSTLER: Oh, yeah, Olivia, I don’t even know if I would have a rebound without Olivia. Her ability to box out a defender who is seven inches taller than her is unbelievable. Her strength, I can’t guard her in practice. She’s really hard to guard. She’s extremely strong. Her footwork is great. She’s the kind of 4-5 that can turn around, hit a jump shot in your face. Those kinds of things are really hard to guard.
She brings a really important piece to our team.
Q. Jeff talked a little bit about LaMont who is from Wichita. How has he helped the team and you guys as players on the staff?
EMILY ENGSTLER: LaMont, when I first got here me and LaMont did a lot individual skill work, him telling me what I need to work on, stuff like that. It’s really cool to pick his brain. I think his IQ level of the game is really good. He does a lot for our team.
He’s the guy behind the camera sometimes. I think he deserves a thank you for the things that he does. I think it’s cool that he’s from here. He gets to come back, have his family come to the game, see exactly what he does.
But yeah, I’m really grateful for people like LaMont because you don’t have that at every program.
Q. Tennessee is a team that really rebounds as a team, it’s not just Key or Dye. For you guys, how big of that was a focus to be disciplined on the boards? How crucial do you think it will be in winning the game tomorrow?
KIANNA SMITH: I think it was the biggest focus we’ve had all week. In our practices we were lucky enough to have Myisha Hines-Allen back in the gym with us. Obviously she was one of the best rebounders at Louisville. Boxing her out. Some of our post players. It was a huge emphasis. I think it’s going to be probably the biggest factor in tomorrow’s game.
EMILY ENGSTLER: Yeah.
Q. Hailey, your shot wasn’t falling as much as you like early in the season. It’s come on here in the end. Talk about keeping that confidence throughout the season and why you’re playing so well right now.
HAILEY VAN LITH: I would say the first month of the season it really wasn’t bouncing in for me. But I kept the same mechanics. I stuck to what I’ve always practiced. I really think ever since really a lot of the season it’s went well for me.
Just sticking true to what I know, my spots I get to, I know where I can score, I know when my moments are on this team that I need to take advantage of. I just think it’s really about true confidence at this point in the tournament. If you don’t have it, it’s going to get exposed at some point.
Just stay true to your game and do what you do good, things will work out, so...
Q. You guys got to play in the tournament a year ago, but it was nothing like this. How nice is it to get the traditional tournament experience? How fun is that for you?
HAILEY VAN LITH: I mean, it’s my first one, so... I guess I had no expectation. I didn’t know what it was supposed to be like when we didn’t have it last year.
It’s been really fun. It’s cool to see how much people are showing up for women’s basketball this year. Like our crowd at home was amazing. It was so much fun. We’re going to miss it the rest of the season. But I’m sure we’ll travel well. I just can’t wait to play the next game, so...
KIANNA SMITH: Yeah, I think none of us have had a traditional March Madness experience past the second round, except for probably Mykasa. It’s probably a new experience for all of us.
Q. Emily and Hailey, we talked about your relationship. We’ve laughed about that this year. How does that help you on the court, how close you are off the court?
EMILY ENGSTLER: I think what it really does for us on the court, it allows us to be able to speak to each other with passion, without either player thinking anything is coming off as angry or mean.
I mean, you’re playing a sport where your adrenaline is pumping constantly. Things can come off wrong to certain people. Based off of relationships, that’s what makes this team so cool. We’ve gotten better at being able to talk to each other knowing how we are when we speak to each other.
I’ve had a couple moments with Hailey where I’ve yelled at her in games. She just kind of was like, All right. Let me say what I had to say, then did what I asked, and vice versa. We’ll laugh about it after the game.
But, yeah, I think it’s important sometimes to have off-the-court relationships transform onto on-the-court relationships.
Q. Hailey, you came in with Olivia. Your point of view of what allows Olivia to shine in big moments against big post players. What is it about Olivia that you think allows her to play up in those big moments?
HAILEY VAN LITH: I mean, Olivia is not scared of anybody. She’s a competitor. She’s going to fight and give everything she has. I think that’s what’s really special about her, is that you can pick anybody in the country and she thinks she can beat them. She thinks she can guard them.
A player, when you have that confidence, it makes all of us believe in her, too. She’s performed against the best players in her position. She’s done really well.
But what I think is special about Olivia, she is one of those players that does her role every single day and doesn’t complain and doesn’t get mad when we miss her sometimes in the post when she’s working hard. I think that’s really special in today’s game. A player that understands their role and finds value in themselves in doing what they do well, not trying to do too much, not getting mad when they don’t get the most shots on the team, they don’t score the most points. That’s really rare these days.
Having Olivia showing up every day, boxing out, rebounding, diving on the ball for loose balls, it’s really special and it holds our team together. It contributes a lot to us, more than she probably knows. We’re really lucky to play with her.
Q. Emily, Coach Walz was talking about the culture of the team, how most of you put in a lot of extra hours in the gym. Is that uncommon? Did you have that same experience in Syracuse?
EMILY ENGSTLER: I don’t think that’s a very uncommon thing. I had a lot of players who put a lot of time in at the gym. I think it just depends on the individual.
I mean, you have people like Hailey and Kianna, who are in the gym every single day shooting the ball, getting what they got to do. I had people just like that at Syracuse. Then sometimes other people come a couple times a week instead of five times a week. That’s your individual self, what you’re trying to reach on a personal level.
I don’t think that’s uncommon. I think there’s differences at every program with that kind of situation. I go in the gym extra, but I can honestly say I probably don’t get in the gym as much as these two. They’re workhorses. Which it’s just how I am. Not everyone is the same, so...
Q. Kianna, quarter of the field left in this tournament is from the ACC. There are four ACC teams left. How has playing that schedule helped prepare this team for this moment?
KIANNA SMITH: I think the ACC is the best conference in the country. Obviously we have, like you said, the most teams left. Showing up against that competition every day prepares us for the NCAA tournament because now everyone left is good.
Our non-conference schedule was tough. Our conference schedule was tough. It’s nothing new in the post-season. So we’re ready for it.
Q. Hailey, coach was talking about people keep guessing how Louisville keeps winning. A lot of people picked Baylor to come out of this region. He says you guys like it that way. What do you embrace about that mentality?
HAILEY VAN LITH: I mean, we’re kind of like the Bad News Bears. We upset everyone’s bracket, we piss people off that we’re good. Everyone gets mad when we beat teams. You learn to love that about it. It’s unfortunate that it has to be that way.
I mean, we got our fans back home and that’s all we care about. We are going to ride or die for them, they’re going to ride or die for us. That is all we need. We don’t need the people picking the brackets. We don’t need Barack Obama’s bracket, we don’t need Jimmy Fallon. We don’t need none of that, okay?
Look, we are still here. That is what it is. We’re going to keep playing Louisville basketball and do us. If you match up with us, you better be ready to play.
That’s all I’m going to say because we’re coming to win. I’m going to get mad if I keep talking, so I’ll stop.
Q. Kianna, can you just talk about your whole family’s history of basketball, how that shaped you as a player.
KIANNA SMITH: Yeah, I kind of was born into basketball. My dad’s a college coach. My uncle coached in the WNBA. My grandpa played for the Bucks. Been around basketball my whole life.
When I was younger, I really didn’t like it. I would bring, like, coloring books to my dad’s practice. As I just like got older and started watching the game a lot more, I enjoyed, like, the bond it created between me and my dad.
I think it shaped me as a person, as a player. I feel like I’m very smooth and an IQ type of player. I think that has a lot to do with me watching my dad’s practices, just watching film with him.
But, yeah, it definitely shaped me as a player. I’m so grateful for that relationship with my family and for basketball.
THE MODERATOR: I’d like to thank everyone for attending. Ladies, good luck to you.
KIANNA SMITH: Thank you.
HAILEY VAN LITH: Thank you.
EMILY ENGSTLER: Thank you.