Lesar: Notre Dame G Arike Ogunbowale gets defensive for postseason run

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – It hasn’t been that long ago that the defensive component of Arike Ogunbowale’s game was somewhat underdeveloped.

In other words, there was a time earlier this season when the 5-foot-8 sophomore guard for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team might have had trouble guarding a soda machine.

One instance, more than a month ago, was notorious. She was chasing a mobile opponent. The player ran from one side of the court to the other, along the baseline. Ogunbowale followed her to the lane, stopped, pointed, and yelled, “Someone get her.”

Probably not the defensive maneuver the Irish are taught.

Somewhere, somehow, the lightbulb has switched on.

Ogunbowale has been able to score since she stepped on campus. The difference between good and great has been her defense. Over the past few weeks, Ogunbowale’s play has bridged that gap. The effort and passion she has showed on both ends of the floor have been a big reason why the Irish finally look like the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament that they are.

Always assigned to the opponent’s top perimeter player, Ogunbowale’s pestering approach made Louisville’s Asia Durr work hard (shooting 8 of 18) for the 26 points she scored against Notre Dame in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. Then, she harassed Duke’s Lexi Brown into shooting 3 of 11, scoring 16 points, in the tourney championship.

Her target Friday (7:30 p.m. tip), against No. 16 seed Robert Morris in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Purcell Pavilion, will likely be Anna Niki Stamolamprou. The 5-9 senior from Greece is averaging 16.5 points and 5.6 rebounds.

“(Ogunbowale’s improvement has) been recent,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Monday during the team’s NCAA Tournament draw watch party. “It’s a mental thing: ‘I have to understand I have to get through this screen.’

“A sense of urgency, maybe … That would be the word.”

“It’s a little bit of both (knowledge and passion),” said Notre Dame assistant coach Beth Cunningham, who is in charge of Ogunbowale. “You’ve gotta understand our defensive philosophy and know how our system works. It’s a learning process. You have to want to work hard at it to get better.

“Some of it’s the will and the ‘want’ to do that. You have to understand the system. Then you have to put it all together.”

“The team needs more from me,” said Ogunbowale. “The coaches told me they need more from me. We’re getting to the postseason now. One game and you’re out. Every stop could be the stop that you need to win.”

One of the foundations of the Irish program under McGraw the last 30 years has been trust. It doesn’t come easily. It takes more than 15.1 points a game to impress her.

“You really do have to earn (trust),” McGraw said. “Mentally… It’s all about the mental mistakes. I can take the physical mistakes. It’s about consistently doing it right.

“You’re going to get beat some times. But, it takes a long time for me (to trust).”

When Ogunbowale says the expectations of her from the coaches are high, she’s not kidding. McGraw and Cunningham are not timid about challenging her.

“I can get on (Ogunbowale) and she responds,” said McGraw. “She’s so fearless. She doesn’t mind getting yelled at. She accepts responsibility; she accountable. That’s important to me when it comes to trust.”

“She’s really taking pride in her defense,” said Cunningham. “She’s always been able to score, but she’s been adding to the other parts of her game.”

“Comparing this year to last, I’m wiser,” Ogunbowale said. “(Defense) is just a mindset I have. They’re going to get their points, but I’ll just try to limit – or at least make it hard for them. I can still get better.

“Last year (losing in the Sweet 16) was a learning experience. We’re just clicking now, and it’s a really good time to click. We’re more confident. We’re showing that we’re one of the best teams in the nation.

“(The three early losses were) a learning curve for us. Maybe it was good for us to go through. Nothing is going to be handed to us. We have to go out and earn everything.

“After that (North Carolina State) loss, we buckled down and said, ‘We’re going to play like we know how to play.’”

Defense was a big part of it. Odds are, somewhere down the tournament trail, the Irish defense will be challenged to rise to the occasion.

After the past couple weeks, Ogunbowale will be ready.

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale (24) and Jackie Young (5) work together to block a shot by Florida State’s Imani Wright (32) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame won 79-61. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN