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Transcript: Jeff Walz, Louisville players talk Final Four

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Michigan v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The transcript is below, but start with video of the evening’s most poignant moment:

THE MODERATOR: We welcome Louisville to the dais and head coach Jeff Walz. We have student-athletes Hailey Van Lith, Kianna Smith and Emily Engstler.

Let’s start with an opening statement from Coach Walz.

JEFF WALZ: First, I would like to congratulate Michigan, their entire team, their staff, on just an outstanding year and such an incredible game.

I thought it was a great college basketball game. They continued to fight. We took a little bit of lead there in the first quarter, first half, they fought all the way back, then we get it up to 9 points in the third quarter, they fought back and cut it to 2. There was never any quit in them.

Just thought overall it was just a great basketball game. For our kids just really, really proud of them. What an effort they gave and continued to give the entire night. Again, we guarded. We had to guard. We knew coming in this we were going to have to defend.

We ended up turning them over 22 times and we come up with 24 points off of those 22 turnovers. And if we don’t turn ‘em over — you know, they guarded extremely well in the half-court as well. It was a tough game to score.

Really proud of ‘em, every single one of ‘em. Excited to be continuing to move on with them.

Q. Hailey, you made a point yesterday — we asked you yesterday about defense and you made the point that we have scorers all over the floor. Chelsie is someone who often goes overlooked. Big day in the Sweet 16, big day today. Talk about what she brings and her performance out there.

HAILEY VAN LITH: We wouldn’t have won without Chelsie today obviously. She brought it on defense. She pressured the ball every minute she was in. She made their point guards deal with full court pressure, slow their offense down. Got a bunch of steels in the fourth quarter.

On offense they were blitzing me a lot, making it tough for me to get shots, and I found Chels and the other girls found Chels off the ball screens and she knocked it down.

That’s what she’s capable of. She is a very good scorer, finds her spots well, and takes advantage of it. She did that today. She earned it, she works hard, and she is always in the gym with me getting shots up.

So, yeah, Kudos to her. She was big-time today.

Q. Michigan didn’t score the last 5 minutes and 42 seconds; missed their last eight shots; your coach was talking about the turnovers. When you get to Louisville the message about buying into defense, how does that get through to you guys? How do you incorporate that into your game and make it such a big part of what you do?

HAILEY VAN LITH: I think, you know, we really focus on it because Coach has preached to us no matter what happens on the offensive end, if it’s the worst shooting night of our lives we can go down on the other end and play defense and get stops.

At the end of the day, if the other team scores less than you you still win no matter if it’s 3-2, 10-9 at the end of the game. We just know defense is something we can always control, and we’ve bought into it this year.

This team, we really came together and we demonstrated that today.

KIANNA SMITH: I would say that defense, like Coach Walz told us before the game, it’s about heart. We wanted this game. We wanted it bad, and we knew if we didn’t pick up stops in the last five minutes that we weren’t going to win the game.

It came down to how bad we wanted it and we wanted it bad, and here we are.

Q. You’re up 7 points, 52-45 in the fourth quarter, and you hit a lull there; went over three minutes without scoring. What’s the attitude at that point and the confidence level? Does it erode it at all when they close it to 2?

EMILY ENGSTLER: Just to stay calm. One of our biggest things that we have spoken about these past couple weeks is to stay composed when things get like that. Everybody likes to bring up how we’ve lost in the fourth quarter this year.

Well we’ve just won two huge games in the fourth quarter when it mattered, so we’re obviously capable of it. We just hit a little bit of a bump throughout the year, and we are back where we’re supposed to be and we locked in with the coaches and with the team, and I think we did an amazing job lifting each other up.

Q. Emily, off that, like you said, a lot of talk was about your fourth quarters coming into the tournament. Tennessee was close in the fourth quarter. You closed this one out, too. Where do you think that change happened? Or was it a focus after the Miami game?

EMILY ENGSTLER: I think the Miami game pushed us to lock in just a little bit more when it comes to the fourth quarter. I think the impressive thing about us is we’re not just 61-61 hitting a last-minute shot. We’re pulling out a 10-point lead in the last three minutes of games, which is, one, hard to do, and, two, a way better way to win because it’s a little less stressful on us.

But it’s also really difficult to do. It means we’re playing great defense. I’m extremely proud of every single person on this team from the staff and the players and everyone who came on this trip with us. It all meant the world, and I think we’re ready to go to the Final Four.

Q. Talking about that lull, all three of you guys tried to take the lid out of the basket, but then it was Olivia that went back-to-back there. What was said in that huddle right out of that timeout where you all went back-to-back, and why was Olivia so effective there?

HAILEY VAN LITH: I mean, I think in the fourth quarter, that look was there the whole fourth quarter and we couldn’t deliver it to her. We were rushing. We were letting their pressure affect us, speed us up.

But the look was there, and in the last few timeouts we really calmed each other down, focused on that look, those layups. We knew we had the open layup, and she was able to finish it. The last take she had she got bumped and finished through, and she played so tough tonight, obviously with her eye from the last game.

She had to push through, and it was another really, really tough match-up for her with Naz today, and she pulled through again. Olivia is so big-time for us that we can’t appreciate her enough.

Q. We like to always ask you before you get to the Final Four what it would feel like to get there. Now you’ve gotten there and you’re still kind of in the moment, what does it feel like?

EMILY ENGSTLER: Yeah, it’s electric. It feels like we’ve accomplished something amazing. I feel successful, but not just there quite yet. I really think this team can go to a national championship and win it.

But we’re going to live in this moment, just like we’ve been doing when we have been playing the games. We deserve to soak this in.

It feels really cool to look around and see people who have been here for 15 years and players who have been here three to four years and see happy tears down their eyes. Just to be able to be a part of that, it’s been a fun ride.

Q. This is the fourth Final Four that Jeff has taken this program to. Every player under Jeff has now made a Final Four. What does he mean to this program? How does he lead you to success?

KIANNA SMITH: Coach Walz is this program. I would say a personal story, when I was on my official visit he told me in a one-on-one meeting said, if you commit, I will take us back to the Final Four.

Obviously not alone, like additions every year, but we’re here, and it’s awesome to just look back on that moment. Coach Walz is just an amazing coach. He pushes us and pushes me in ways that, like, sometimes I get frustrated with, but it got us here, and I’m just so thankful for him and his leadership.

I know he can lead us to a national championship.

EMILY ENGSTLER: He’s meant the world to me, personally. I think it’s been a difficult three years for me, and he was just somebody who took me under his arms and didn’t really care who I was or where I was coming from on a mental level, and I really appreciate him.

He’s a good person. I love you too, man. He’s a good person and he’s a good person on the court. He’s just really fun to play for. He lets you be yourself and he protects you and you can trust him, and that’s hard in this industry.

So I’m grateful for him, and I’m going to do whatever I can to get him a national championship.

HAILEY VAN LITH: I kind of would agree with Em. He’s obviously a player’s coach in that he lets you play and have fun. When we’re breaking in transition, he let’s us try and create and be exciting, and he defends us when we talk crap and we get techs. He always has our back.

I think for me he works on the person you are off the court. I’m a stubborn one, and he’s had to teach me to enjoy life outside of basketball. Yeah.

He cares about you off the court, and it’s not just a business. I think it’s pretty obvious the emotion that we play with and the emotion that he coaches with, that we would run for a wall — every girl on this team would run through a wall for him.

And so I think that’s what makes us dangerous in this Final Four, is that we will do anything for each other. We’re doing this for our city and we’re doing this for the 14 girls on the team and Coach Purcell and JP and LaMont and Coach Walz and his wife and his kids.

We’re doing it for all of them. It’s a lot more than just individual, and he really teaches us that. So, yeah, Coach Walz has built this program into something really special.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, ladies. Congratulations. We will open it up for questions for Coach Walz.

Q. You’re looking at Emily’s stats, 1 for 9 from the field, 5 points, but you’re also looking at 16 rebounds, 6 steals, 4 assists. Can you talk about somebody who struggles to shoot like that but has that impact on the game.

JEFF WALZ: She has always had that type of impact on the game, it doesn’t matter how she shoots the basketball.

We start off the third quarter and we’re going to trap as soon as the ball is thrown inbounds, and we do and we get a jump ball.

Then he she starts off the fourth quarter the same way. Back-to-back starting quarters where we get a jump ball call and now it’s our ball. It was big plays like that throughout the entire game, the number of deflections she came up with. Her rebounds; 14 defensive rebounds is pretty impressive.

She just does things you don’t teach. It’s who she is. When we made that run there in the third quarter, I think we were getting really close there, she came up with another deflection, we get the steal, the layup, and we get a second steal, but then we miss the bunny there at the bucket, where if that goes in I think it puts it at 11, and all of the sudden who knows what might happen.

But because of her ability and her length to get her hands on so many balls, it just disrupts the other team’s offense.

Q. Olivia question. She takes the charge with four fouls. Does your heart stop waiting for the call? Secondly, after that timeout, you called a timeout and you gave her 30 seconds. I won’t quote your quote, but what was your thinking there?

JEFF WALZ: No, I mean — they had called a timeout, I believe, and then we called one just to give her a minute to rest. She wasn’t coming out. I told her flat out, I said, you’ve got to suck this up.

There’s about two minutes from us going to a Final Four; you can’t be tired. I gotta give the kid credit. She gutted it up and she came up with some big plays there at the end.

I joked with her. I told her that the charge she took was because she was so tired she couldn’t move to get out of the way so she just took the charge. It was perfect. She laughed about it, but she was. She played her left shoulder, which we talked about. That’s how Naz likes to turn, and just took a big-time charge. I think it was a 6-pointer or 4-point game at the time, and it really give us the momentum.

And then the other thing I was impressed with was how when they started to try to press there at the end we attacked it and Mykasa threw a great pass to O for the layup. I’m looking forward to going back and watching that, because that probably wasn’t but a foot away from hitting the rim on the pass, which made me nervous.

Instead of waiting and holding it and trying to get fouled, if you can get points, get points.

But O was great. She battled all night, picked up two early fouls, but I thought she was fantastic.

Q. I think it was that same sequence of Olivia’s plays there when they came to the side, but you got right in Emily’s face and, I don’t know, gave her a pat on the back. Just wondering what you said there or what that was about.

JEFF WALZ: No, it wasn’t a pat on the back.

Q. Oh, it wasn’t? I couldn’t tell if you were mad or happy.

JEFF WALZ: No. It was an inspirational speech (Laughter.)

Q. Okay.

JEFF WALZ: Inspirational speech is how I like to say it.

Q. I didn’t know how to interpret that. Okay. She was talking about how you incorporated her into this team and helped her. Can you describe the relationship you have had with her and what you saw in her and felt like she could bring to this team?

JEFF WALZ: Well, we played against her for three years. I say it all the time: what makes this team so special is when she went into the transfer portal and was looking to transfer, the first person I talked to was Mykasa Robinson on our team, because Emily was going to impact Mykasa’s playing time more than anybody else on this team.

And Mykasa, without hesitating, was, like, Coach I’m tired of guarding her for three years. She would always get stuck having to guard her. She said, if we can get her, let’s get her.

Because these kids like to win. Kas plays 16 minutes tonight, Emily plays 34 minutes, but at the end of the day we’re going to a Final Four. There aren’t many players who would say that, and that is why I absolutely love this kid, Mykasa.

She is hardly ever up here at the press table because she is not putting up all these numbers, not scoring a bunch of points, but what she does for this team you can’t measure just by stats.

But the relationship that I have with all of these kids, I treat them like they’re my own, okay? As I tell them when I recruit them, and three of my four are back there sitting down, they can tell you they don’t like me all the time.

Because as a parent you have to parent, and sometimes you have to discipline. That’s what we do here with our team. We’re just — and I say it and I’m glad you were able to see the passion that they spoke about tonight.

Because at the end of the day, we are coaching and playing a game of basketball, but our jobs as coaches is to try to help prepare these young ladies for life after. It’s tough. Life is hard. As you all know.

We gotta make sure when they leave here that they’re at least more prepared for it than they were when they came in.

I love all of ‘em. Just so excited for every single one of them.

Q. Hailey always plays with a lot of energy, but it seemed like she had something extra tonight. Was there anything in that that you observed?

JEFF WALZ: It was a game to go to the Final Four. I mean, that’s all — that’s what it was. The kid competes. She loves these moments. You look at her stat line, she is 9 for 15, 3 of 3. Now I’ll talk to her about the four turnovers, but besides that, I mean, that’s a pretty darn good ball game she had for us.

Q. That third quarter, a lot of fouls, and even in the beginning of the fourth quarter, a lot of fouls called. But you guys played still aggressive in that fourth and held them without a bucket in the final near six minutes of the game. What does it say about your defense? On Chelsie, if I remember right, she didn’t play well against Michigan the first time; I think she played thirteen minutes, which is the lowest she has played all year. Talk about her game today and how much she does that a lot of people don’t normally see?

JEFF WALZ: She was big for us tonight. If she doesn’t play the way she played that first half, we’re probably down 6 or 8 going into the half. She made big-time shots. I asked her if she tried to bank the one in on purpose.

That’s what happens. If you get into a rhythm and start feeling good you get those to go for you and she banked the one in, but defensively is where she was outstanding. She caused so much chaos, heated up their point guard, was up into the ball, and was outstanding.

For Chelsie, I’m so excited and happy for her, also. You go back and look at her last year at Vanderbilt and they opted out because of COVID, and now she is getting a chance to play in a Final Four. What a storybook.

She is a kid that we recruited hard out of high school. It came down to we had offered Dana and offered her and Dana committed first, which was great. What a remarkable career she had. But we knew Chelsie, and when she went into the portal it was like, okay, we know the character she is and it was nothing but an asset to our program.

Q. Kianna Smith gets 30 plus minutes tonight. How big was she? It seem like your offense runs smooth when she is in the lineup for you and gives you a lot of different looks, ball handling and is able to knock down shots. She seems to be a calming presence you need offensively.

JEFF WALZ: She played well. She really did some nice things, came up with some big-time baskets when we needed them. I think they cut it to two, and we ran a set where she comes off a hand-off and a screen and hit a big-time pull-up jump shot for us.

She played really, really well, excited for her, excited for everybody. Before we finish, I want to make sure that I thank Sam Purcell. What an awesome way to finish this up with him, to be able to go into our last weekend of possibly — to play games. There is no more after this coming weekend.

And then excited for Sam to be taking on a new responsibility as a head coach at Mississippi State. Then Steph Norman. She has been with me for all 15 years. She has been a huge part of these Final Fours as well. I’m just really, really fortunate to have her as a part of this program and then JP, Beth Burns, my entire staff. They’re amazing, and I’m blessed to have them.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Coach.