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Transcript: Jeff Walz, Louisville players preview Final Four

Happy Final Four Friday

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Final Four - Previews Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

via ASAP Sports

JEFF WALZ: Just want to say how excited we are to be here. Looking forward to the opportunity to compete tomorrow night. We’ve got a wonderful group that I’ve had the opportunity to coach this entire season. Not only are they great basketball players, but they’re great people.

It’s been one of the most enjoyable seasons that I’ve had in terms of just our road trips and getting to know them and practicing and teaching every day. And just looking forward to going out tomorrow night and playing a great basketball game against a very, very good South Carolina team.

Q. Jeff, your family is here; how cool is it to be able to share this with them, this experience of being here in the Final Four and such? And the second part, people are talking about a lot of the other teams that are here. It seems like you guys are getting the least attention of your opponent tomorrow and the other game. Do you think to yourself, we’ve been to a lot of Final Fours, the same amount as South Carolina?

JEFF WALZ: Well, yeah, it’s always special when you are able to do something like this and share it with family. My parents were able to make the trip up with us on Tuesday night, as well, and my wife and my two daughters and my son. And then my oldest unfortunately has a volleyball tournament this weekend, so she wasn’t able to make it for this round, but she was in Wichita.

It’s special. I say it all the time, I’m blessed that my children are able to be around these young ladies, and they treat them like they’re their own brothers and sisters, and it really means a lot to me because my kids really look up to them, and I couldn’t ask for better role models. Yeah, it’s nice to be able to have family here.

And then it’s nothing new. It is what it is. You know, you listen to the shows, and I mean, I guess we’re not supposed to be here. I’m not sure, but it’s our fourth Final Four in 15 years. We’ve been to, I think, seven Elite 8s. We played in the last four Elite 8s. So I think we’ve done all right; I don’t know. It’s not too damn bad.

Now, we haven’t won a National Championship, so I understand that, so I’m the first to say that. We’ve played for two, and unfortunately for us, I guess in some ways, I think the two that we lost in ‘09 and ‘13, the UConn teams, both those teams would probably be ranked in the top 5 of all women’s basketball teams ever.

We just had a sucky year to play them in ‘09 and ‘13. But overall if you go back the last five years, I think we’re either the third or fourth winningest program in women’s basketball, and if you go back ten, I think we’re in the top five or top six. I think we’ve done pretty damn well.

When I hear people say, what are you going to do to get over the hump, what hump is there to get over, besides winning a National Championship. And I know it would be wonderful, but we’re not going to define the past 15 years on one game, knowing a program that had never been to a Sweet 16 ever in the history of the program — which I think was 32 years — and now we’ve been to four Final Fours. I’m not sure anybody expected that.

I’m pretty damn proud of what we’ve done here, and we’re going to continue it, and if we’re not in the national media talk the entire time, so be it.

But I’ve said it all along; in order for our game to continue to grow, we’ve got to get out our narrative of when the season starts, we start with something and we stick with it. When players start to evolve throughout the year on the men’s side, you’ll start seeing more stories about other players as the year goes on, other teams. We’re just not that good yet.

I listened to a podcast that included Sue Bird, and I think Sue said it perfect, we just don’t have enough media yet that’s covering our game.

So our national media, when you look at it, there’s probably only six or seven.

So when new players and new teams start to evolve, it’s hard. It’s hard for the six or seven to continue to cover, and Michele is one. It’s hard.

So until we get more in the terms of more media that’s covering our game, we’re not going to grow as quickly as I think we can. Because this year’s NCAA Tournament showed there’s a lot more parity in women’s basketball now than there has been, and I think it’s going to continue to grow.

Q. Jeff, this morning there were about 850 women in the portal. The portal has done well for you. I think you have three starters you got in the portal. What’s your take on the portal? I know the COVID year makes it weird. Do you think it’s going to continue to be a big recruiting tool and that kids may end up leaving when they don’t play early?

JEFF WALZ: The portal — kids have always transferred. Now it’s just becoming a bigger deal because you’re eligible right away. So it’s not like players haven’t transferred in the past.

I always like to say, the grass is greener on the other side because it’s fertilized with a bunch of bull.... I think there are a lot of players that will jump into the portal after one year that don’t really have a good grasp of why they’re doing it. But then there’s other situations — we’ve had players here — I’ve had some guards that have moved on and had wonderful careers because they were playing behind Asia Durr. And they came into my office and we sat down and talked, and they said, hey, I just want the opportunity to play more, and I totally respect that. It was great for them. I still talk to the kids.

Then you’ve got Kianna here with us and then Emily and Chelsie, Liz Dixon. The portal, it’s not going anywhere, but I think the difference is we’ve been able to be pretty selective of the players that we take when it comes to the portal. And we’re not only looking to take good basketball players, we’re looking to take good people who are going to fit into our culture.

I’ve said it, and it was a nice article written, but when Emily Engstler went into the portal, the first person I talked to wasn’t my staff, it was Mykasa. And I asked her, hey, would you be okay if we could get Emily, would you be okay with that? Because Emily has impacted Mykasa’s playing time more than anybody on this team. And she looked at me, and she’s like, I’m tired of guarding her. If we can get her, yes, because she likes to win, and she wants to play with other good players.

So that’s the difference, because you get a lot of players that go into a team from a portal who aren’t a good mix. The chemistry is bad. But Chelsie and Emily this year, and these three can tell you, too, I think they fit in great.

Kianna was a holdout in the fact that she’s probably the last kid who actually wanted to sit out and go through a redshirt year because she wanted to be blessed with an extra year with me. So she could have played right away, but she said, oh, hell no, I want that extra year. And it’s been wonderful for her.

Q. You were in a similar situation about a decade ago, you played Baylor which was supposed to win the National Championship, they had Brittney Griner who was the national Player of the Year. Now you’re going against South Carolina and Boston. Is it similar at all, and what have you seen from Boston in how you can possibly defend somebody like her?

JEFF WALZ: Well, I think it’s similar in the fact that no one really expects us to win. They’re different in some of the way they play, but we’re going to have our hands full. There’s no question about it. I watched her the other night on film when she had 28 and 22. That’s not easy to do.

We know we’re going to have to make sure we’re focused on her and know where she is at all times, but she’s also got pretty good teammates she’s playing with. So we’ll have a plan for tomorrow night, and then if plan A doesn’t work, we’ll go to plan B, and then plan C if needed, and there is no plan D.

We’ve got three, so we’ll see how A, B and C work.

Q. Hailey, four years ago you played on a U-17 team, USA Basketball. Eight of those players are competing this weekend. What are your memories of that team, growing up with that group of players, and what’s it like competing against former teammates and how enjoyable, or is it enjoyable?

HAILEY VAN LITH: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s really cool to see the growth of people and games and friendships. I think that obviously Team USA, we’re very talented and they get us together young, and we were very successful and it was fun. I don’t really remember that team very much. I’ve played on a few. But everyone is always really nice, good people off the court.

I think it’s really special that this group especially in that age group and we played with each other multiple times, we’ve been able to grow the game. There’s a lot of players that are in this Final Four that are major catalysts for women’s basketball, and I think it’s really cool that we all have relationships with each other, want each other to do well. And I’m happy for them that they’ve got to this point, but on the court tomorrow, I want to win. We can be friends after the game.

Yeah, it’s really cool, mostly just the growing of the game and what we’ve been able to do as a young group of athletes has been really special.

Q. Dawn Staley talked about you coaching today, I believe it was on a USA Basketball team. Just provide some context what that was like, your relationship with Dawn and what this matchup is like.

JEFF WALZ: Yeah, I had the opportunity to coach with Dawn. I was an assistant for the U-18, U-19 teams years ago, may have been ‘14, ‘15, and really enjoyed that. Dawn was outstanding.

The basketball part aside, I was able to take my son at the time with us when we went to Russia, and she was fantastic with that. We actually played them again up in the Hall of Fame Classic. I don’t remember, I’m not even sure what year that was. But my two oldest live in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, and they made the trip up with us and then Dawn was kind enough to let them fly back home with their team on their charter.

The unique thing about our game, I think, is the friendships that are built among some coaches off the court, and then obviously when you’re competing against each other, you’re both trying to win.

But yeah, Dawn has been great, and I appreciate those opportunities.

Q. Kianna, a lot of people won’t probably know what Moreno Valley, California is. What does it mean to you to be here and represent such a small community?

KIANNA SMITH: Yeah, it means a lot to me because a lot of the people from back home have been sending me well wishes just about how proud they are of me. So it means a lot to represent all of them, all of the — like my coaches from when I was in elementary school or my teachers who always believed in me. So it means a lot to represent them.

I mean, we have Kawhi Leonard from Moreno Valley, too, so we’ve got some people out of Moreno Valley.

Q. Mykasa, Coach Walz has told a story about you and accepting Emily multiple times the last couple of weeks. Can you kind of walk us through your thinking on that, knowing that it was going to affect your playing time? And secondly, if you don’t agree to that — he says he wouldn’t have signed her if you hadn’t — do you think you would be here? Has Emily made the difference in this being a Final Four team?

MYKASA ROBINSON: Yeah, I’m going to start with the second question. Emily is a huge piece to everything we do. She saves games for us. She does a lot of things that you don’t see many girls doing. I think we would still be very successful, but I don’t know where we would be without Emily.

As far as when we recruited Emily — and Coach Walz talked about it — playing time is great, but I want to win. Whatever it takes to win, whatever it takes for the team to be successful and to win, it’s what I’m willing to do. Emily is a great player so her addition to the team is everything for us.

Q. Mykasa, Jeff has had — every four-year player at Louisville has now been to a Final Four. You were the last one to keep the streak alive. Did you know that going into the Elite 8? And this team plays with a lot of intensity. How much of that is part of what this culture is built on and what Jeff has built, because it seems like it continues year after year.

MYKASA ROBINSON: Yeah, going into the game, Asia had told me you’re the last one, you really should get this. So getting that was super exciting. I was full of emotion, tears, just full of joy.

But the intention that we play with, I think it comes from our staff. I think that we try to match their intensity every day in practice, and as long as — as well as my teammates, Hailey, Kianna, Emily, they bring that energy to practice every day. I think as long as we just trust in each other and we stay with what we’re doing, we’ll be good.

Q. Coach Walz, I know your time was short here in the twin cities, but talk about coming back to the area to participate in the biggest event that the sport has to offer.

JEFF WALZ: Yeah, you know, I really enjoyed my season here. You know, it was one of the turning points, I think, in women’s basketball here at Minnesota. We had — Brenda Frese was the head coach at the time, and we were playing in the Pav in front of about 4,000 or 5,000 at most. And then they had a water pipe burst over Christmas break, and it froze on the floor, and then we end up going to — I believe, Wisconsin was the first game after Christmas break. They were ranked in the top five, and we won.

Then the next home game, we moved to the Barn, and it was sold out. From that point on, we continued the rest of the season playing in the Barn in front of unbelievable crowds with Lindsay Whalen was a sophomore, Janel McCarville, Corrin Von Wald, just some really, really good players. And to watch how that season evolved from playing in front of 500 to 1,000, I think, our first game, to selling it out was pretty neat.

It’s great to be back. The weather hasn’t changed. (Laughter). So that’s stayed pretty consistent since that one year I was here. But overall just having the opportunity to play in the Final Four with this group of ladies is pretty special.

Q. Jeff, when you look back at your start in this business and the stops you made in College Park before taking over at Louisville, what did you learn together about putting together a roster that could contend for a Final Four regularly and what are the most components for you for a championship contender?

JEFF WALZ: Well, I was really fortunate to work for six years for a gentleman by the name of Paul Sanderford who’s going into the women’s basketball Hall of Fame and will be recognized, I believe, at halftime of our game tomorrow night, which is really special to me. Having the opportunity to play in a Final Four when the person that gave you your first chance is being recognized for the Hall of Fame, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Paul is the one that kind of showed me how to — what’s important. You obviously have to have players. You’ve got to have great players. And then you’ve got to have players that are willing to give of themselves. You’ve got to have players that are willing to do the dirty work. You’ve got to find someone willing to take charges and rebound and defend. Not everybody can be your leading scorer.

That’s one of the things we talk about all the time. There’s only one leading scorer on the team. But what makes our group unique is we can have — we probably had six or seven leading scorers in different games. So we’re hard to just go into a game and say if you just stop this one, then you can beat them. It’s just not how it works with us. So we’re very balanced.

And at the same time I’ve got players here like Hailey that loves the moment. She loves that moment. She wants the ball at the end of the game. But at the same time what I love about her, if they blitz her, she’s got confidence in her teammates to get off the ball because Kianna is going to knock down a shot, Emily Engstler is going to knock down a shot. We get doubled in the game against Michigan, we get it to Emily, and Olivia makes a beautiful back door cut for a lay-up that puts us up four.

It’s that. Those are the things you have to find. That’s kind of what we’ve tried to do as a staff is not only find great players but great people. It makes our lives a lot easier because when you’re with people like this and you’re spending as much time as we do, it’s nice when you enjoy being around them.

Q. This is going to be a really elite guard matchup with you and South Carolina, both on the offensive and defensive side. It’s as good a guard matchup as we could get, I think. Can you guys talk about that matchup and what you expect individually and as a team on the perimeter matchup?

HAILEY VAN LITH: Yeah, I think for us as a team, what I’ve been really trying to focus on and carry over to the girls is that regardless of whether the ball goes in on the offensive end for us, we’re going to guard, and we’re going to play defense and we’re going to rebound.

So for me, I think the emphasis is that whether they do double me, whether they blitz me, whether I get shots or not, whether I’m 0 for 10 in the first half, I’m going to rebound and I’m going to do everything I can on the defensive end to compete.

It is going to be an elite guard matchup, but I think it’s going to be who’s the mentally toughest to fight through the fact that these are both elite defenses and not get in their feelings about what’s happening on the offensive end.

For us and our guards, if we shoot great, amazing. But if we don’t, we’re going to go defend and make sure they don’t score, either.

KIANNA SMITH: Yeah, it’s a great matchup. They have great guards and posts, but our defense all year has been a team effort, and that’s the way we play. We scramble. If somebody gets beat, we cover for each other. Nothing is going to change in that manner, that we’re going to be flying around, playing hard. Offensively like Hailey said, we’re going to go at people, and regardless if shots go in or not, we’re going to give that effort regardless.

MYKASA ROBINSON: Yeah, we were built for this moment. We have so much preparation under our belts and our guards, we know what to do and our coaches put a great game plan in, both offensively and defensively, so just trusting in what we know.

Q. Hailey, in Greensboro after the loss to Miami, Coach in the postgame press conference took a lot of the blame for that loss, but he also said if this doesn’t sit in your gut and piss you off, I don’t know what to do for them. My question is did it piss you off, how long did you think about it, and how have you guys grown since that Miami loss?

HAILEY VAN LITH: Yeah, obviously the ACC Tournament was very disappointing for us. We definitely sold ourselves short that game. But yeah, it did piss me off. I’m a very competitive person, and I think that’s very obvious. I was pretty mad about it. I think it showed on my face when I saw the shot going in. I think they showed a lot of me doing that.

But I think the next day I was ready to take accountability for the fact that I did not perform well enough for my team, and I didn’t. I told the girls, if I would have played better we probably would have won, and I understand that and that’s not going to happen again this year. Once I was able to do that and take accountability, it really didn’t bother me anymore, to be honest. Because I knew that the vibe on our team and the confidence and the togetherness that we just created, it wasn’t going to happen again, and I knew we were a different team from that moment.

Of course it pissed me off, but I wasn’t going to let it piss me off so much that it ruined the rest of this season. We learned from it, the team got together, we figured it out. We’ve proven that we’re a different team to this point, and we’re ready to move forward.

Q. Jeff, equality has been a part of this conversation, this tournament, because of those changes the NCAA have implemented. From here what else do you want to see, do we need to see, and is important for those young women and the next generation of them, as well.

JEFF WALZ: Yeah, I think, first off — and I’m not going to speak for them, I’ll let them speak. But I’ve been really impressed with this year’s NCAA Tournament. I don’t count last year’s. I know everybody talked about the weight room, and I’m going to ask these girls so they can answer.

How many times have you asked to see a weight room when we were in Wichita? Never. At what time here did you want to go to a weight room? Never.

The weight room was only an issue because we were in a bubble. In the other however many years we’ve been playing in the NCAA Tournament, I have never had a player ask to go to a weight room. Not one. If we’ve suggested it, they break out in hives.

That to me obviously was a huge faux pas by our committee, to not have an idea of what the men were doing. But to compare that, I think that got blown way out of proportion.

I think the experience is what matters to me, and I think they’ve had a great experience. The signage, the things they’ve done, the player lounge in the hotel. I personally love the Oreos, so shout-out to whoever puts those out each day. But I think they’ve enjoyed that. They’ve got a nice little parent room now for the players and their parents to be able to be in the hotel, as well. Yeah, from that side of it, I think it’s been better.

Now, as they’ve discussed, it would be great to see shares of revenue given out as you move on in the NCAA Tournament for the women, as well. And it might not be the same amount as the men. See, I’ve never been a big proponent of everything has to be the same, okay? And I say this all the time, I use incidental meals, food as an example.

If you go to a restaurant and there’s 15 college men at a table and then 15 college women at another table, and I said you had to buy for one of the two tables, who you buying for? The women. Why? So it doesn’t have to be the same. We just need to be treated correctly.

I want to be able to go to the same restaurants as our men’s programs do, and we do. But it doesn’t mean I need a thousand dollars a night for a restaurant because maybe my crew might only eat $650 worth. So as long as they’re given the same experiences, that’s what we’re fighting for.

I feel pretty good about our situation here at Louisville. Ladies, am I off base? That we get treated that way.

So the disbursement, sure, I’d love to see some changes in that. But overall I think they’ve done a really nice job. Our hotel has been fantastic, everything. I think the experience has been right on point.

Q. Jeff, after you guys won the Elite 8, obviously Kianna, Emily, and Hailey got pretty emotional talking about you. As a coach, there’s a fine line between being really hard on the players but also caring for the players. When you were coming up in your coaching career and even earlier at Louisville, how did you decipher between or figure out how you could be really hard on them and also show them that you care about them off the floor, as well?

JEFF WALZ: These players — the players that we have here — and these three, also, they want to be great. The thing I do, I ask them when they come here, what do you want out of your career? Hailey wants to be a pro. Kianna wants to be a pro. Mykasa would like to play overseas, I think, correct?


JEFF WALZ: I figure out what they want. I’ve had some that have told me, hey, I just want to have a good college experience, go on, get a job, get married one day, have children.

Well, I don’t treat them all the same. Hailey has got a workout routine she does before and after practice. Kianna does too. Mykasa does. But it might not be the same. Once they tell me what they want, it’s our job to help them try to get there.

If players know you care about them off the court and if you know what their dreams are and you’re trying to help them reach their dreams, you can challenge them. You can challenge them. And I challenge them.

But they know as soon as practice is over, it’s over. We don’t carry stuff with us. I think that’s why we’ve been able to have the success that we’ve had. And it’s not only with our basketball results, what we do on the court, but I think it’s with what our players are able to do in our community and then what they do after they’re finished.

But yeah, it meant a lot to me what took place after that game. The wins are awesome. It’s great to win. But for them to say what they said and show the raw emotion that they showed, yeah, it was probably more rewarding than winning that game on Monday night.

Q. Jeff, Emily has talked about trying to learn how to — she’s straddled playing with passion and anger, and just wondering how you’ve helped her with that and how you think she’s progressed with that.

JEFF WALZ: Em has just become better friends with the officials. I think she sent out some Christmas cards and things like that, so she has really done a much better job of just being able to control her passion when fouls are called or they aren’t called. But I don’t think any of us wanted to change who she is, because it’s a lot of fun. And I’ve got to — and Hailey and her are buddies. I still can’t figure that one out. But she does an outstanding job of helping Em. There’s no question about it.

Q. Hailey, you’ve made it clear that your team has an underdog mentality here and you’re not letting it get to you, that the Jimmy Fallons and the Barack Obamas of the world aren’t writing you in on their brackets. Now that you’ve made it here, how much is it continuing to fuel you as you’re facing the wire to wire No. 1 team in the country?

HAILEY VAN LITH: Yeah, I think it was a little — I think the media took it the wrong way a little bit. I don’t think we’re an underdog. I think we’re right where we meant to be. I think our team deserves this opportunity, and we’re ready to compete. But yeah, we’re just — the media isn’t including us, this and that, blah blah blah, we’re not being talked about as much. We cannot control that. That is not our fault. If they want to sleep, let them sleep. We’ll come in and do us, and we’re going to do us to the best of our ability. We’re just not going to waste energy on things that we can’t control at the end of the day.

I think that we’re going to focus on us, and we’re going to do what we need to do to compete, and they’re a really great team, and we’re going to have to play well, but nothing that we’re not capable of. And we’re playing together as one, we’re doing this for each other. We’re not doing this for the media’s attention, we’re doing it because we want to win for the 14 girls on this roster and the coaches that have worked so hard all year.

Yeah, it was fun. That media day was fun, and it was really just a joke about the brackets. But yeah, we’re not letting that get to our head. We’re focused on us.

JEFF WALZ: I’ll agree with Hailey. It’s reality. You don’t have to — it’s nothing you can fake. You’ve got — you have PTI and Tony and the guys that are talking about women’s basketball and the Final Four and talking about the teams and talking about the UConn and Stanford matchup and the winner of that game is going to play South Carolina. I don’t know if they know there’s four teams in the Final Four. I don’t know if they’ve seen a women’s basketball tournament or not, but we actually have four. They just started it. (Laughter).

God bless if we are trying to get equality, so I think they may have thought the last 30 something years when we had three teams in the final three. But we actually have four, and we are the fourth.

When someone comes out and they just flat-out say the winner of the UConn-Stanford game is going to play South Carolina, yeah, that’s — I’m sure they thought that the winner of that Tennessee-Oklahoma game was going to play Baylor in ‘13, too, but unfortunately that’s not what took place.

At least let’s roll the balls out and let’s see what happens, and they might end up being true, but I’d give us a fighting shot at it.

When you do hear things like that and it’s blatant about it, yeah, I would say we’re the underdog.