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Women’s Final Four brings Louisville coach Jeff Walz back to Minnesota

Cardinals coach was an assistant to Brenda Frese when the Gophers started their golden era

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Wichita Regional-Michigan v Louisville
Louisville Cardinals head coach Jeff Walz rand team react on the sidelines in the last moments of the fourth quarter against the Michigan Wolverines in the Wichita regional finals of the women's college basketball NCAA Tournament on Monday, March 28, 2022, at INTRUST Bank Arena in Wichita, Kansas.
William Purnell / USA Today Sports
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The Women’s Final Four field invading Target Center this week is loaded, bluebloods all, old ones in Stanford and Connecticut, newer additions in South Carolina and Louisville.

Among them, the entrants have made 43 combined Final Four appearances and won 15 national championships — 11 by UConn. The only team here in the Twin Cities this week without an NCAA championship is Louisville, but the Cardinals do have runner-up finishes in 2009 and 2013.

“Our thing is we have to win that last game, that’s what it all comes down to,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “I think for people to really think we’re there, we have to win the national championship.”

Walz has been part of two big-time programs, his own — he’s been to four Final Fours, with four entirely different teams — since joining Louisville in 2007 and at Maryland, where he was an assistant to Brenda Frese when the Terrapins advanced to the 2006 NCAA title game before losing to Duke in overtime.

And there was Minnesota.

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“It’s exciting to be coming back,” Walz said Tuesday. His Cardinals (29-4) will play top-ranked South Carolina (33-2) in Friday’s second national semifinal at Target Center.

Walz was an assistant to Frese in her one season as Minnesota’s head coach, and it was a good one. With point guard Lindsay Whalen and center Janelle McCarville, the Gophers went 22-8 and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years to launch the golden area of Gophers women’s basketball. They made the next five NCAA tournaments, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen (2003, 2005) and the Final Four (2004).

“Yeah, that one season that we had up there at Minnesota was one of the most remarkable years that I’ve been a part of in women’s basketball,” Walz said. “We started in the Pavilion, my bad, that’s when the pipe busted, then we went to the Barn and all of a sudden we’re selling the place out.”

Walz has coached the ACC player of the year in five of six seasons: Myisha Hines-Allen (2016), Asia Durr (2018, 2019) and Dana Evans (2020, 2021). In 2007, Angel McCoughtry was Big East player of the year; now she’s training with USA Basketball under Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve.

Reeve hired Walz as her court coach for spring training at Mayo Courts across the street from Target Center.

“This is the one (moment) that I’m excited that I’m not able to be a court coach with the national team this week,” he said. “It was something I was really looking forward to doing because I love when I get the opportunity to work with those great players and USA Basketball.”

Team USA ties

McCoughtry isn’t the only national team player who will have a chance to visit with her old team.

In all, there are six Team USA players whose alma maters are in the Final Four: McCoughtry; Allisha Gray and A’Ja Wilson from South Carolina; and Azurá Stevens, Breanna Stewart and Courtney M. Williams from UConn.

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Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley coached Team USA to a gold medal at the Tokyo Games in 2020. UConn’s Geno Auriemma led the team to gold medals at the 2010 World Championships and 2012 Olympics. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer was in charge of Team USA in 1996, winning gold in Atlanta.

Ukraine challenge

In preparation for the Atlanta Games, VanDerveer’s team played a series of games in Ukraine.

“We were playing in a tournament, and we got to know the Ukrainian players because we played them like 10 times,” VanDerveer said Tuesday. “I affectionately called them our cousins, we played them so much.”

That experience inspired VanDerveer to donate $10 to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine for every 3-point basket made during the tournament. The total was up to 749 after 64 games. So far, www.Taras3ptchallenge.com has raised more than $153,000 — with big donations from Team USA’s Stewart and former NBA star Charles Barkley — to help the country that was invaded by Russian troops on Feb. 24.

When in Kyiv, VanDerveer said, Team USA routinely passed a monument portraying a man raising his fist. One day she asked one of her assistants, now-Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner, “What is this?”

Fortner, she said, replied “Party on.”

“So, as soon as this stuff started happening, I called her … and said, ‘They’re not partying now,’,” VanDerVeer said. “We need to do something.”

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