A year ago, Drew and Roth had me on their podcast to talk a bit about the NCAA tournament. As I remember it, Drew asked me to name the most hateable player in the women’s bracket and, having never considered the question, I couldn’t come up with a good answer on the spot. I like all women! Some listener emailed me afterward to say I had ruined the bit by being insufficiently mean, and then offered me some pointers re: “vocal fry.” Once I was done sobbing (how I wish that were a joke! haha!), I privately returned to the question. I landed, unsatisfied, on Maryland’s Katie Benzan. She shot 50 percent from three and used to go to Harvard. That’s two annoying things. But Benzan was no more than a weak placeholder; a better answer eluded me. For my own sake, I deleted the email. But now I want to find that guy and I want to tell him: “Hailey Van Lith.”
Van Lith, Louisville’s star sophomore guard, might be the scariest person alive. She would never have her entire week derailed by a stray email. If you so much as raised the subject of vocal fry to her, you would soon find all your limbs out of place. She is so good, so intense, and so fearless that I could only sit there and smoke as she went to work in Louisville’s 62-50 win over (sigh) Michigan on Monday night, sending the Cardinals to the Final Four. The hooper’s hooper, she scrambles defenses, beats opponents off the dribble and, increasingly, finishes through contact with little trouble. When the title-favorite South Carolina Gamecocks—a team with its own shifty guards—meet Louisville on Friday night, they’ll have difficult work in stopping Van Lith and her teammate Emily Engstler, a defensive rockstar who managed to dominate a game she finished only 1-of-9 from the floor. (Engstler’s incredible final line: 5 points, 16 rebounds, 4 assists, and 6 steals.)
Van Lith’s sophomore season began slowly, but she’s thrived under the pressure of the tournament, scoring at least 20 points in each of the four games Louisville has played. “The kid competes,” her coach Jeff Walz said. “She loves these moments.” In fact, she is such a competitive sicko that literally Kobe Bryant once got in touch with Van Lith’s father to ask for advice in training his own daughter to be a competitive sicko. Asked postgame what Bryant would tell her now, Van Lith replied, on national television, “He would say, ‘Go fucking win this shit, Hailey.’”
After the Michigan-Louisville game, I watched what’s become something like comfort food for me lately—Van Lith’s old high school mixtapes, all with “SHEESH!” or “Watch Your ANKLES!!!” or the fire emoji in their titles.
Great player, yes. But what makes a great player a great villain? This tournament, Van Lith has played with a mostly unwarranted chip on his shoulder. “We’re kind of like the Bad News Bears,” she said, after beating Tennessee in the Sweet 16 round. “We upset everyone’s bracket, we piss people off that we’re good. Everyone gets mad when we beat teams. You learn to love that about it. It’s unfortunate that it has to be that way.” There’s the true mark of the despicable athlete. Hailey! Your team is a one-seed!
She went on: “We don’t need the people picking the brackets. We don’t need Barack Obama’s bracket, we don’t need Jimmy Fallon. We don’t need none of that, OK?” OK. She does not need Barack Obama. She does not need Jimmy Fallon. She does not need this blog. She needs none of it. All Hailey Van Lith needs in life is a split second to jab step, shoot, and break her opponent’s heart.