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UofL Women's Basketball Team Has a New Look, But Same Winning Habit

Updated: Feb 10

By: Russ Brown

Photos by: Matt Johnson

Louisville's women's basketball season to this point can be best summed up in a single sentence: New look, same old results.

That's one way of saying that despite having eight new faces — six transfers and two freshmen — and only four returning players, the No. 18 Cardinals (10-1) look as if they're poised to continue their unparalleled success under coach Jeff Walz.

They are well on their way to their 14th consecutive 20-win season under the 52-year-old Walz, who is far and away the program's all-time “winningest” coach with a 441-124 record going into this year, including 40-14 in NCAA Tournament games, the fifth-best winning percentage among active coaches at .741.


He is the only coach in the nation to have taken his team to the past five Elite Eights. Under Walz's guidance, UofL has also been to three other Elite Eights, 12 Sweet Sixteens, four Final Fours and two national championship games. And don't forget about the four straight ACC regular season titles from 2018-2021.

But this is a different kind of season for Walz because he's never had to restock with so many new players and blend them into a winning unit with the handful of returnees after losing six players from last year's 26-12 team to graduation and five others to the transfer portal. The departures included Mykasa Robinson, who set a program record for games played at 162 and the top three scorers who combined for 40 points per game.

Walz pursued some blue chip high school prospects, but lost out to colleges offering bigger NIL deals. So he br ought in six transfers he felt could make a significant impact immediately, most of whom had winning experience.

Three of the newcomers were all-conference players last season: Kiki Jefferson (Sun Belt Player of the year at James Madison), Jayda Curry (Pac-12 at California), and Sydney Taylor (Atlantic 10 at UMass). Point guard Nina Richards started the past two seasons at Florida, and Hennie van Schaik, a 6-3 native of the Netherlands, led Cal-Bakersfield in both scoring (11.6 ppg) and rebounding (7.2 rpg).

However, Jefferson, Richards and Taylor each played in the NCAA Tournament just once, while Curry and van Schaik never made it to the Big Dance. UofL's familiar faces are senior guards Eylia Love and Merissah Russell, sophomore forward Nyla Harris and senior forward/center Oliva Cochran, a pre-season all-ACC choice.

So Walz naturally expected some growing pains, and although the record-approaching midseason doesn't show it, that's what he has gotten, reflected mostly in inconsistency, both within games and from one game to the next.

"You're going to see some moments of great," Walz told Louisville fans at the annual Tip Off Luncheon. "And then you're also going to see moments of, 'Who are they?' OK? We're trying to get more than just moments of great, and I really believe with the way they work, we will. This ballclub is going to be a much better team in January and February. But I will be highly disappointed if we don't compete at a high level."

"I think we see spurts of what we can be, and plays and possessions and kind of runs of it," Curry said. "But we're just trying to work on putting together a full 40 minutes of it."

The Cards thrive on balanced scoring, defensive intensity and toughness. They average 11 steals per game, which is third in the ACC, and they have outrebounded opponents by nearly 12 per game, also third. Walz puts a premium on depth too. No player is averaging more points than Jefferson's 12.1, and six are contributing eight or more and nine players are averaging 15 minutes or more per game. None of the five starters average more than 25 minutes.

"You know what you're going to get with us," Walz says. "It's one thing we hang our hat on and we take a great deal of pride in. You are going to see a hard-playing basketball team that will go out there and compete and play for each other. It's not just about scoring points. It's about, are you willing to sit down and defend. These young ladies work as hard as anybody I've seen so far in our 17 years. I'm very impressed with the chemistry we have, the attitude they come to practice with each day, and the way they treat each other." 

"Coach Walz holds us to a very high standard," Russell said. "We love him, and he's a great coach. And he cares about us women, not just as basketball players. And we have the best fans in the country; they give us an extra boost."

While UofL doesn't have any high-scoring stars, its most invaluable player is Olivia Cochran, who is the most experienced player and, with her thorough knowledge of Walz's system and how he coaches, has taken on a leadership role this year. Cochran started 38 games last season, averaging 8.4 points on 50 percent shooting and leading in rebounds at 6.5. This season, she is averaging 11.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg and shooting 49 percent.

"O's three years are Elite Eight, Final Four, Elite Eight," Walz said during the ACC Tipoff. "She's gotten better and better each year. "She's a kid who there's a lot now that's being put on her because, from year to year, the expectations have increased. She has been doing a great job of handling those. So, as we go through this year, I think she's going to see that a lot of the attention from opposing teams is going to be on her."

"My coach is depending on me, so I feel like I have to step up and show that he can trust me," Cochran said.

UofL's best victories heading into its ACC schedule at Miami on Dec. 31 were against No. 21 Gonzaga (81-70) on a neutral court, a road win at Ole Miss (64-58) and a hard-fought battle against Kentucky (73-61) in the KFC Yum! Center.

We'll learn during UofL's rugged ACC schedule if another deep run in the NCAA Tournament is in the Cards. The league is one of the deepest, if not THE deepest, in the country. 

"It's one of the best I've seen from top to bottom," Walz said. "I'm looking at our schedule and it's like, where are the wins?"

Nearing the end of the non-conference schedule in late December, there were seven ACC teams ranked in the Top-25 — NC State (3), Notre Dame (14), Virginia Tech (16), UofL (18), Florida State (22), Miami (24) and North Carolina (25).

"We've got to be tough," Cochran said. "The ACC is a hard conference and we play for a tough coach, so we can't be out there being weak."

"I think even our bottom teams can beat anybody else's top teams in other conferences," Russell said. "There's never a game where you can think, 'We're going to walk in and beat somebody easily' and think we can't give effort every time."

In ESPN's early Bracketology predictions, Louisville is projected as a No. 5 seed.

"Would I say we're a Final Four team right now? No, I don't think we are," Walz said shortly before the season got underway. "But come January and February, I think we could surprise some people just like we did this past year."

Given UofL's achievements under Walz, the only surprise would be if the Cards aren't considered a dangerous contender in March Madness. 


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