COLUMBUS, Ohio — Surveying the celebration scene late Sunday from the center of the Notre Dame women’s basketball locker room at Nationwide Arena, associate head coach Niele Ivey knew what would follow.
Maybe not later that night when the Irish gathered with family and friends and former players at their downtown hotel for a party that might not have ever ended following the school’s second national championship, won in pure no-freakin'-way fashion earlier that evening, 61-58, over Mississippi State.
Maybe not the next day as the tired and road-tested traveling party boarded their charter bus for the four-hour ride through rural Ohio and Indiana. Maybe not during or right after the campus welcome back that afternoon or in the next week or next month.
But having lived in a similar moment and having won the ultimate prize as a college basketball player, Ivey knows what’s coming.
Everything changes with a national championship.
It will change for guard Arike Ogunbowale, who hit a second improbable shot in the closing seconds to cement another Final Four win. Along the way, she went from a second team All-American guard with a congratulatory tweet from NBA legend Kobe Bryant on Friday following her Mamba-like work against Connecticut, to a national celebrity getting Twitter love from all of sport’s corners. From Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander. From Bryant again as well as current NBA All-Star DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors. From South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson, the national player of the year. From Houston Texans terror J.J. Watt.
Just ship her an ESPY right now. No reason to wait until July. No one will touch her for being as clutch as it comes.
It will change for fellow guards Marina Mabrey and Jackie Young, who held court next to Ogunbowale in the corner of the locker room. It will change for junior Jessica Shepard, who spent her first two seasons at Nebraska before transferring last year. On Sunday, an hour after the confetti floated down around her on the court, she stood with the game ball tucked safely under her arm. She guarded it with a smile that grew wider with every passing moment.
“I keep telling everybody we’re national champions,” Shepard said. “It hasn’t really hit me.”
It also will change for senior forward Kathryn Westbeld, who made good on her goal to win her final collegiate game. It will change for everyone, as it did for Ivey, who was the starting point guard on coach Muffet McGraw’s first championship team in 2001.
Ivey and her former teammates waited 17 years to share the ultimate spotlight. The memories of the moment never will fade. They still haven’t for Ivey. That's what happens when you win it all — everyone remembers. Forever.
“They’re in the history books now,” Ivey said as she scanned the room. “They’re legendary. Everybody is going to remember this moment and everybody is going to talk about this game and this team.
“Their lives are going to change."
It had been too long since Ivey and a fellow core of seniors that included Ruth Riley and Kelly Siemon, both in the victorious locker room Sunday, experienced all of it. Ivey’s one of the brightest head-coach-in-waiting in the business. An ace recruiter. Able to relate to everyone on the roster. In her 11th season as one of McGraw’s confidants, hers is a known name up and down and around women’s college basketball.
Yet people today still stop and talk to her about 2001. About winning a national championship. In her hometown. In her final game.
Just as they talk about Ivey, they’ll talk with this year’s core, which overcame the longest of odds to shock the college basketball world with two heart-stopping/heat-checking victories in program history. One in overtime against previously-undefeated Connecticut; the other Sunday.
“People will walk by you and say, ‘You know, I was rooting for you that weekend,’” Ivey said. “You don’t realize that now, but they were on the biggest stage and everybody will remember. It’s something nobody will ever forget.”
Finally forgotten, somewhat
For nearly two decades, Ivey and her teammates held a title that they really didn’t want. Until Sunday, they were the only Notre Dame players to win a national basketball championship. She was more than willing to let this team have that honor.
She’s fine with stepping aside.
“I love it,” she said of this group now having the rep of being the last team to win it all at Notre Dame. “I’ve been waiting to be old news. I’ve wanted to be old news since in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015.
“I couldn’t wait to pass that torch.”
So much so that it seemingly started to singe her fingers. She knew what direction to go. To the team’s lone healthy senior, someone who wore the same number 33 — as Ivey during her playing days. Ivey talked often about that with Westbeld throughout the season. Like Ivey, Westbeld won her final college game in her home state. Ivey served as sort of a national championship whisperer to Westbeld starting last fall and carrying right on through the winter. This is your chance to write the happiest of endings. Seize it.
“I told Kat, 'You’re going to do this,’” Ivey said.
Like her teammates, Westbeld walked around the locker room Sunday during the 30-minute media window in a definite daze, her eyes glazed. She carried the NCAA trophy. She wore the white net from one of the rims around her neck. She smiled. She tried to describe her range of her emotions. She often struggled for the right words.
Pick an adjective. It likely fit.
“Unreal,” she said. “I’m just so happy and so proud to be part of this organization and just feel the love. It’s such a surreal moment for me.”
Surreal in that nobody outside of the Irish inner circle expected this. Winning it all. Cutting down nets. Singing the school fight song loudly and proudly after the final game. Dousing McGraw with a bucket of water afterward.
All this wasn’t supposed to happen. Not after the events of a certain Tuesday evening in January back in South Bend. Tennessee paid a visit that evening, and promptly pushed Notre Dame into a 23-point deficit. At home. The Irish were lethargic. Lifeless. On their way to a really lopsided loss in their own building.
But then everything changed. Determination and drive kicked in. Notre Dame won, 84-70, which set the stage for what happened over the weekend.
“That,” McGraw said of the Tennessee game, “changed our whole season.”
A season that started in the fall with McGraw being inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and closed in the spring with 35 victories, only three losses and a national championship.
“It’s been a pretty good year,” she said.
What might McGraw do for an encore? Everything that has nothing to do with basketball. In late May, she and husband Matt will attend son Murphy’s wedding in Paris.
That one won’t come down to the final few frantic seconds before it’s time to celebrate. Again.
• NOTRE DAME 61, MISSISSIPPI ST. 58
NOTRE DAME (35-3): Shepard 8-10 3-3 19, Westbeld 2-4 2-2 6, Mabrey 3-9 3-3 10, Ogunbowale 6-21 5-7 18, Young 2-7 2-2 6, Nelson 1-1 0-0 2, Totals 22-52 15-17 61.
MISSISSIPPI ST. (37-2): McCowan 7-19 4-8 18, Johnson 1-6 0-0 3, Schaefer 2-5 0-0 6, Vivians 8-18 4-5 21, William 3-4 0-0 6, Bibby 0-2 0-0 0, Campbell 0-0 0-0 0, Danberry 1-5 0-2 2, Holmes 0-0 2-2 2, Totals 22-59 10-17 58.
Notre Dame 14 3 24 20 — 61
Miss. St. 17 13 11 17 — 58
3-Point Goals-Notre Dame 2-9 (Shepard 0-1, Westbeld 0-1, Mabrey 1-4, Ogunbowale 1-3), Mississippi St. 4-16 (Johnson 1-5, Schaefer 2-5, Vivians 1-5, William 0-1). Assists-Notre Dame 8 (Shepard 2), Mississippi St. 9 (Danberry 3). Fouled Out-Mississippi St. McCowan. Rebounds-Notre Dame 35 (Westbeld 9), Mississippi St. 38 (McCowan 17). Total Fouls-Notre Dame 17, Mississippi St. 21. Technical Fouls-None.A-19,599.