SOUTH BEND — The number of times Arike Ogunbowale gets tagged on social media has radically changed over the last seven months, as has her list of off-court national TV appearances, but Ogunbowale herself has not changed.
At least that’s what she says, and what her teammates confirm.
Well, except maybe for those moments she does get tagged.
Such has happened nearly every day, compliments of assorted fans, ever since Ogunbowale helped catapult Notre Dame to the 2018 women’s basketball national title — and herself into instant celebrity — with her back-to-back game-winning shots during the Final Four last spring.
Ogunbowale slayed heavily favored No. 1 Connecticut with a ring-wing jumper at one second to go in the semifinals, then conquered Mississippi State with a buzzer-beater for the national title from a similar spot two nights later.
It might be time to rename her Arike Again-bowale, not only for those twin feats, but also for the fact that she admittedly does watch the replays again and again.
“I get tagged in (game-winning shot videos) a lot, so probably every time I get tagged in it, I watch it about 10 times,” Ogunbowale confessed with a smile during ND’s media day last week of how often she’s seen her two most famous baskets.
“I actually got tagged in it today, so me and Jess (Shepard) were watching it in class,” Ogunbowale divulged.
Hey, don’t judge until you’ve accomplished exactly the same.
Those pauses to reminisce aside, Ogunbowale is “still the same goofy Arike,” as teammate Jackie Young described her last week.
“She’s probably had to mature a little quicker in some ways just because of all the attention she’s gotten, but look at her,” Young said, as she pointed to a nearby Ogunbowale joking around with assistant coach Carol Owens. “It’s the same Arike as before.”
“I don’t think she’s changed at all,” said Shepard, who joins with Ogunbowale, Young and Marina Mabrey to give the Irish four starters back from last season’s 35-3 national champions.
“She’s handled it all very well,” Shepard said of Ogunbowale exchanging Final Four weekend tweets with Kobe Bryant, being featured as a contestant on the hit TV show “Dancing with the Stars,” making an appearance on “Ellen” and in July winning the ESPY for “Best Play.”
“It was a great opportunity for her, and for women’s basketball in general, to do some of those things, and to be the first to do them,” Shepard said, “and she stayed very grounded during the process.”
Mabrey, who remains Ogunbowale’s roommate, agrees.
“She’s the same Arike, always having fun, always humble,” Mabrey said. “She endured the experience and the attention, but her real personality never changed.”
“I just think that’s how I was raised,” Ogunbowale said of remaining humble. “I never get too high or too low no matter what’s going on.
“I mean, it’s a blessing being in this position, and it could all go away in a second, so I will never take it for granted.”
Ogunbowale has been training in a manner that suggests she’s looking ahead, not back.
“I think the great thing about Arike is how she got back in the gym and was determined to be the hardest worker in practice,” coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think she’s always worked really hard, but now I think she’s taken it up a level. She been a really great role model, she’s really helping to lead, she’s doing a great job helping the freshmen. She has just had a more determined attitude.”
Those words suggest Ogunbowale might be even better than the player who earned Associated Press All-American second-team honors and averaged 20.8 points last season, though it’s hard to imagine her finding a way to better her 2017-18 dramatics.
On the other hand, both those game-winners last spring were achieved in games that were deadlocked as opposed to being do-or-die shots.
Maybe this time around she can hit one with her team trailing.
“Actually, yeah, in high school,” Ogunbowale said of whether she’s ever done that, “but it still doesn’t compare to (what happened at the Final Four).”
While the “Ice Twice” queen says she will never shy away from pressure shots, she says she doesn’t need them.
“At the end of the game, I’d rather be up 30,” Ogunbowale insisted. “Hopefully, we’re never in a situation like last year again.”
Inside power pair
The 6-foot-4 Shepard was indisputably Notre Dame’s premier interior player last season when she averaged 15.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and shot 56.5 percent from the field as a junior on her way to All-Atlantic Coast Conference first-team honors.
The 6-3 Brianna Turner was indisputably the team’s premier interior player the season before, when she averaged 15.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and shot 61.9 from the field as a junior on her way to AP second-team All-American honors.
Now, for the first time, the two veterans get to line up together. Turner missed all of last season with a knee injury, while Shepard was in her first go-around at ND after transferring from Nebraska.
Both players say they’re eager to play with the other, and that they don’t care who’s perceived as a No. 1 inside option.
“Bri and I challenge each other every day, from pick-up matchups where we’re kind of getting a little chippy to just working together in practice,” Shepard said. “We’ve known each other for a long time and had a very good relationship, so for us, we know everything we’re doing is just (about) challenging each other and making each other better. It will definitely be nice to be on the same side. In pick-ups, we’re always on different sides.”
“I think it will probably be really hard to double-team one of us,” Turner said of the kind of attention each player has experienced in the past, “because the other’s gonna be open. It’s gonna be awesome playing with Jess. I really haven’t had the opportunity.”
Turner, a two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year, particularly helps ND at that end.
“We have a shot blocker back and that’s so exciting for me, McGraw said.
Turner has averaged 2.6 blocks per game during her Irish career and altered countless other shots. ND as a team averaged just 3.2 blocks last season, with Shepard the leader at 0.7.
“I think Bri and I will complement each other very well,” Shepard said. “We both bring different things to the game. We’re very different in some ways.”
Turner, besides being a defensive standout, runs the floor well for a big and excels in pick-and-roll situations, according to McGraw. Shepard is a highly skilled passer among bigs and can do offensive damage outside the paint.
Espousing the zone
As the injuries mounted last season, so did Notre Dame’s use of zone defense as a way to counter the team’s shortened bench. The zone produced less energy spent chasing and fewer fouls, and soon the Irish were excelling in it.
McGraw says the Irish probably won’t play as much zone this season despite the success — and despite the opinion of her husband, Matt.
“I was talking about playing zone,” McGraw recalled of a recent discussion with her staff, “and Matt overheard me as I said ‘I don’t think we’re going to play as much zone,’ and he said, ‘Well, you know, you won the national championship playing zone. I’m not a coach, but it sounds to me like that might be a good idea to try again.’
“I think we definitely will throw some zone in,” McGraw continued, “but we are capable of playing more man-to-man, which in a lot of games was still a necessity. I’m looking forward to being able to play a lot of different options, (including) press more, which was something we really couldn’t do at all before.”