SEATTLE (AP) — Hailey Van Lith put on a show in her home state to get Louisville back to a familiar place — the Elite Eight.
Van Lith scored 21 points to help the fifth-seeded Cardinals beat No. 8 seed Mississippi 72-62 on Friday night and advance to the final of the Seattle 4 Region.
“It was amazing to have friends and family in the whole state out cheering for us,” Van Lith said. “I’m a very focused player, there were no distractions before the game. After the game, I kissed all the babies and hugged all the people. After business was done, I celebrated.”
The Cardinals (26-11) will face second-seed Iowa on Sunday for a trip to the Final Four. The Hawkeyes beat Colorado 87-77, behind the play of Caitlin Clark.
It’s the fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament that Louisville has gotten this far, one of the few teams to accomplish the feat.
“It’s hard to continue to get to where we are and win,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “You have to enjoy it. It’s too short not to enjoy these types of moments.”
Expectations were high for the Cardinals under Walz to start the season as the team was ranked seventh in The Associated Press’ preseason Top 25 poll. With many new players, the Cardinals lost four out of six games in late November and early December.
Walz wasn’t concerned. The team started to get more comfortable on the court and made a run to the finals of the ACC Tournament, where they lost to Virginia Tech.
“We’ve been playing well for the last month and a half,” Walz said. “We’ll continue to roll and continue to play. We’re going to enjoy this tonight. I’m going to enjoy this. I’m going to the bar. Life’s too short.”
On Friday, the Cardinals were met with a stiff challenge from upstart Mississippi.
The Rebels (25-9) hadn’t advanced this far since 2007, when the team made its fifth Elite Eight in program history. They were looking to become only the second No. 8 seed to reach a regional final, joining Southwest Missouri State, which did it in 1992.
Mississippi’s defense under coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin had been so good in the first two games of the tournament, keeping both Gonzaga and No. 1 seed Stanford under 50 points in each game.
“The Sweet 16 is the new standard,” McPhee-McCuin said.
Louisville reached that mark by the end of the third quarter on Merissah Russell’s 3-pointer. That gave the Cardinals a 52-42 lead — their biggest of the game to that point. That 3 came shortly after Jones’ three-point play extended a 46-40 lead to nine.
The Cardinals played their own stout defense for the second game in a row. The Cardinals held host Texas to 51 points in the second round.
Louisville got off to a slow start against Mississippi, but then Van Lith got them going and the Cardinals led 20-15 after one quarter. After a slow start to the second quarter that saw them give up the lead, the Cardinals still managed to hold a 34-29 advantage at the half.
They couldn’t separate themselves from the Rebels until the end of the quarter.
Ole Miss cut its deficit to 58-53 with 2:32 left before Van Lith hit a shot in the lane to stem the Rebels’ run. After Myah Taylor made the first of two free throws, Olivia Cochran had a three-point play with 2:17 left to make it 63-54 and pretty much seal the victory.
“I didn’t feel like we had control of the game at any point. That’s different for my team,” McPhee-McCuin said. “The lights got bright. There were a lot of times I didn’t know who I was coaching. When do we give up 20 points in a quarter? That’s uncharacteristic.”
Marquesha Davis and Taylor each scored 19 points to lead Ole Miss.
Around these parts, Van Lith is a household name. She’s the small-town standout from 130 miles away who grew into being one of the best prep players in the country, the all-time state high school leader in scoring and now a star for the Cardinals.
Many fans from her hometown of Cashmere that has a population of 3,200 took in the game, cheering the Louisville star on. They gave her a warm ovation during pregame introductions and every time she scored.
This was the first meeting between the schools. ... This is the 19th appearance for the Rebels in the NCAA Tournament, and the first time they have earned back-to-back bids to the tournament since the 2004 and 2005 seasons. ... Louisville’s bench outscored Mississippi’s 27-6.