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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.”

(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.