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Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith is made for March

(Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — Snoqualmie Pass can be unforgiving.

In the winter snow flurries swirl, semis pull over to apply chains, and the traffic slows to near-glacial speeds. The roads can become near-glacial, too.

But Snoqualmie Pass became a strange kind of friend to Louisville coach Jeff Walz. It was the thing that guided him to Hailey Van Lith, a player he had his eye on since she was in eighth grade.

Walz made several recruiting trips to Cashmere, Wash., a town of just over 3,000 people, situated 12 miles outside of Wenatchee, where Van Lith played high school basketball. He’d fly into the Sea-Tac airport, and then hop in a car to make the two-hour and 17-minute drive. Walz scoffed at those semis on the side of the road.

“I couldn’t figure out why all the semis were pulled over,” he joked. “It just opened things up for me as the snow was coming down to make a quick trip.”

The roads, the snow and Snoqualmie were worth it to get Van Lith.

Now, together, they’ve returned to her home state for the Sweet 16. No mountain drives required this time, as the airport is just 19 minutes from Climate Pledge Arena.

In the winter, Snoqualmie Pass becomes unforgiving. And in March, Hailey Van Lith does the same.

The Louisville guard is known for being hyper-competitive. When she plays, Van Lith’s blue eyes stretch wide, her mouth hangs open, gasping for every breath she can get. Her work ethic is undeniable. Her skills, remarkable. Her spirit, fiery enough to melt the snow on a Washington winter road.

In March, though, all of those qualities are amplified.

There’s something about a win-or-go-home atmosphere that makes Van Lith come alive. And on Friday, fans in her home state saw that passion firsthand as Louisville topped Ole Miss 72-62 for a spot in the Elite Eight.

Van Lith led the charge, with 21 points, five rebounds and four assists. She also played 40 minutes, a normal occurrence for the guard who averages 36.7 minutes per game.

“The kid loves to compete,” Walz said. “She just loves these types of moments. And I’m really happy for her, because for a kid to come from Cashmere, all the way to Louisville, Kentucky, that’s a commitment. It’s a sacrifice.”

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(Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

It didn’t feel like a sacrifice to Van Lith. In Walz, she saw a kindred spirit. Someone as passionate as her. She realized that when he’d send her photos on the snowy roads as he drove to her high school games.

And when she got to Louisville, his support only increased.

After Louisville beat Texas in the Round of 32, Van Lith and Longhorns guard Sonya Morris exchanged words in the handshake line. Much was made of the moment, but Van Lith brushed it off. Others didn’t.

Walz got an email from an angry spectator, unhappy with the situation and the way Van Lith handled it. Walz could have ignored it, but that’s not his style.

“I ripped the guy’s tail,” he said.

Add it to the list of reasons Van Lith chose Louisville. She needs a coach like that. One that doesn’t ignore nasty emails. One that not only sees Van Lith for who she is, but loves her for it.

“I needed someone who believed in me and was going to let me be me,” she said. “Like, I’m competitive, I’m passionate, I love the game, and I needed a coach who was going to let me express that on the court.”

When the bracket came out, showing Louisville’s tournament path would go through Seattle, Walz was elated. He wanted this moment for Van Lith.

When her name was announced pregame, Van Lith received an echoing ovation. And after the game, once she finished TV interviews, Van Lith left the court in a half-run, half-skip motion, grinning at the crowd.

But between those moments, she could have been anywhere. The home crowd didn’t enter her mind. Winning did. That’s all she could think about for 40 minutes.

“I’m a very focused player and everyone knows that about me,” Van Lith said. “There were no distractions before the game, to say the least. But after the game, I went and kissed all the babies and hugged all the people. So after business is done, then I celebrate, but before then, I was locked in to winning the game.”

Van Lith was locked in from the jump, scoring seven points in the first quarter. She had 10 by halftime before going through a rough patch in the third and partway through the fourth. She was 3-for-10 in the second half, but when Louisivlle needed her most, the guard delivered. With 2:53 left, Ole Miss cut what had been a double-digit lead down to 58-53 after Myah Taylor secured a turnover and converted a fastbreak layup.

Van Lith responded with a jumper to get Louisville’s lead back to seven, and then closed the game out with four free throws in the final 40 seconds.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Van Lith looked up. Her serious demeanor faded away and her face lit up with a smile. “Oh my gosh,” she called out, as the reality set in. Louisville was going back to the Elite Eight.

The Cardinals started their season 5-4 and ended up losing 11 games, six of which came in a challenging ACC conference slate.

After the four early losses, Louisville fell out of the national rankings. Questions about the trajectory of the Cardinals’ season arose outside of the program. But inside, everything stayed the same. They knew where they would be in March.

“Despite what the outside public thought, it was an expectation for us to be here,” Van Lith said of the Elite Eight. “That’s why we got it done because we expected that of ourselves. We’re not hoping or wishing for anything. We’re going out there and we’re executing.”

The ups and downs of the season were Louisville’s Snoqualmie pass. Not ideal, but worth it to get to something great on the other side.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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