SOUTH BEND — Minutes after Notre Dame won the women’s basketball national championship, Arike Ogunbowale looked into the ESPN camera at the end of her interview with Holly Rowe and delivered a recruiting pitch.
“Anybody that’s thinking what school to go to, go to Notre Dame,” said Ogunbowale, who just made her second game-winning shot in as many games in the Final Four. “This is what we do. National champs right here.”
Samantha Brunelle, espnW’s top-ranked recruit in the 2019 class, was watching and nodding.
“She’s right on,” Brunelle said. “It’s special at Notre Dame. I could see that. I just love the things that coach (Muffet) McGraw and the coaching staff have done.”
But Brunelle didn’t need any more convincing. The week prior, the 6-foot-2 forward decided she wanted to commit to Notre Dame. On April 3, two days after the Irish won the title, she called McGraw to share the news.
Brunelle still wasn’t ready to share the news with the world yet. She wanted to schedule a commitment ceremony at her high school, Stanardsville (Va.) William Monroe, to let everyone in on her verbal commitment. Keeping the secret wasn’t easy.
“It was really hard for me, because I was so excited about it and the opportunity,” Brunelle said. “For me, I really wanted my community to be able to see it happen if they wanted to. They’ve been through everything with me my whole career. It was important to me to have them involved in my decision.
“I really wanted to pick a day that all my teammates, former coaches, current coaches and anybody who’s involved with me could make it. I had to wait a little bit for that, but it was all worth it.”
Brunelle spent most of the ceremony thanking the numerous people who guided her basketball career. Then she showed off a Notre Dame shirt and put on an Irish hat.
Notre Dame made a strong first impression on Brunelle when she visited in October on the same weekend the Irish football team defeated N.C. State. She was able to visit campus for the first time, talk with McGraw and associate head coach Beth Cunningham, whom she communicated regularly with from a distance, and reunite with Irish center Mikayla Vaughn, whom she had played against on the camp circuit.
“Stepping on campus was amazing. I love the architecture of the school and how it’s all laid out,” Brunelle said. “Going there you’re going to have so many connections.”
Then Brunelle watched the Irish fight through a season riddled with injuries. Vaughn, a freshman, went down with a torn ACL in her left knee in November. Then Lili Thompson, a graduate transfer point guard, tore the ACL in her right knee.
But the Irish kept picking up victories and did the unthinkable with wins over UConn (36-1) and Mississippi State (37-2) in the Final Four.
“I was watching them the whole season because of the underdog look they had with so many crucial injuries,” Brunelle said. “It’s just amazing how they did everything they did and accomplished the things they accomplished.”
When Brunelle, who can first sign with the Irish in November, arrives at Notre Dame, she’ll give the Irish a different dynamic than they’ve had in recent years. Dan Olson, creator of the Collegiate Girls Basketball Report and the man behind espnW’s HoopGurlz rankings, couldn’t think of a recent Notre Dame player to compare with Brunelle.
Brunelle has her own lofty comparison. She tries to model her game after Elena Delle Donne, the four-time WNBA All-Star and 2015 MVP. Brunelle averaged 30 points, 15.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 3 blocks and 2.2 steals per game as a junior.
“I’m a competitor. I don’t really like to lose,” Brunelle said. “Losing’s tough, but I accept it and move on. My offensive ability is pretty versatile. Offense is my big key. I’m working on my defense.”
Brunelle’s competitive edge could have been tested Sunday, when shortly after her commitment announcement, a report in the Hartford Courant, citing unnamed sources, claimed the Huskies hadn’t offered Brunelle a scholarship.
That was news to Brunelle, who last visited UConn in December.
“They did offer me. I went on a visit (in 2016) and sat with (head coach) Geno (Auriemma), and he told me,” Brunelle said. “That’s false information.”
Auriemma is no stranger to recruiting controversy with the Irish. In 2014, Auriemma sent out a now infamous tweet that appeared to be related to Ogunbowale. Fourteen minutes after Ogunbowale tweeted out the top five schools in her recruitment, a list that did not include UConn, a verified Twitter account for Auriemma posted the following:
“Stay tuned for my list of the 5 players I saw the past 7 days that I have zero interest in recruiting.... #whatajoke”
If only a coincidence, that would be some awfully poor timing from Auriemma. The report on Brunelle moments after she announced wasn’t a good look either.
Brunelle, like Ogunbowale, will likely get a chance to prove herself on the court against UConn. She said she informed the Huskies of her decision before announcing it on Sunday. She’s ready to head to Notre Dame – whether UConn wanted her or not.
“UConn really wasn’t the place for me. So for somebody to say that now, it is what it is,” Brunelle said. “It’s not a huge deal to me because I’m just happy with my decision and that’s what’s most important.”