“When you have the opportunity like our team, why would you give it up,” said Van Lith after the game. “We’re going to run with it as long as we can and give it everything we can.”
Tennessee had advanced to the round of 16 for the first time since 2016, as coach Kellie Harper, in her third season, continues trying to rebuild what was once a dominant women’s basketball program. But the team struggled against Louisville’s ferocious press, and shot just 36 percent.
Louisville jumped to an early lead, and grew it to 11 by halftime. Their press made even crossing half court a challenge for Tennessee’s ballhandlers, and they forced eight first half turnovers. When Tennessee did get into offensive sets it was rarely able to penetrate to the basket and often had to resort to long cross-court passes and contested 3-point attempts.
Tennessee is one of the better half court defensive teams in the country, and managed to bottle up the left-handed Van Lith, who shot just 7 for 21 in the game. But Engstler was very effective, scoring 20 points and pulling down 10 rebounds, and Kianna Smith chipped in 12 points.
Tennessee attempted to fight back in the third quarter behind the deep ball, and closed Louisville’s lead to just five. After making just one 3-pointer in the entire first half, the Volunteers shot 4 for 6 on threes in the third quarter alone. They also took advantage of foul trouble, as Louisville seemed discombobulated behind constant changes necessitated by players shuttling in and out of the game.
The lead shrunk to two in the fourth quarter, but Engstler had 8 points, including an emphatic putback with two minutes remaining, and Tennessee just couldn’t get its offense going.
“We really emphasized stops, rebounds and being mindful of the ball,” said Van Lith.
Engstler was a semifinalist for the defensive player of the year award, and her versatility was evident. Engstler, a 6-foot-1 forward, frequently led the press and used her agility to trap the smaller Tennessee guards. On the same play, after Tennessee beat the press, she would sometimes retreat into the paint to fight with Tennessee center Tamari Key, whose 6-foot-6 frame towered over Engstler.