Noie: Biggest shot in program history sends Arike Ogunbowale, Notre Dame to title game

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Selling this script would be silly.

Nobody would buy it. Nobody would believe it, not after what Notre Dame pulled off against undefeated and seemingly invincible Connecticut in a national semifinal showdown on Good Friday at Nationwide Arena.

With midnight closing quickly, Notre Dame junior guard Arike Ogunbowale connected on arguably the biggest shot in program history. Heck, in school history. A Cinderella shot.

Move over Dwight Clay and your corner jumper that helped snap UCLA’s 88-game win streak in 1974. He’s got some serious “Iceman” company on campus.

Ogunbowale’s jumper from the right wing with one second remaining in overtime sent the building and women’s basketball up for grabs. It also pushed the Irish (34-3) into an Easter Sunday national championship date with Mississippi State, which advanced with an overtime semifinal win of its own over Louisville.

But this one was bigger. Better.

Final: Notre Dame 91, Connecticut 89. Overtime.

Believe it. Notre Dame will play in its first national championship game since 2015. Shoot for its first title since 2001.

Connecticut has lost 12 games in the last eight seasons. Eight have been to Notre Dame.

“It’s especially sweet to get this one,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw.

The way the Irish persevered through some serious adversity, going up by 13 (nice), then down by 11 (not nice), they had every business winning this game and sending the Huskies home from a national semifinal for a second straight season. But the way the Irish treated the final 21.4 seconds of regulation, you had to wonder — did they really have any business winning this one? Were they finally out of magic acts? Out of gas?

Really?

A team that had been so resilient through the toughest of times had it. Right there. It was theirs. Victory. A Sunday spot. But Notre Dame picked the wrong time to crumble under the magnitude of the moment.

And what a moment.

One minute, junior guard Marina Mabrey was pounding her chest and celebrating with her teammates. The Irish bench was going crazy and the coaching staff was trying to keep their wits about them and hoping, even wishing and wanting those final seconds to run off and have this one go final.

The next, they were trying to keep the Irish thinking clearly in a crazed atmosphere after Connecticut scored five points in 12 seconds to tie it at 79.

It was right there, then it was almost gone.

“We really should have finished it in regulation, but stuff happens,” Ogunbowale said with a shrug.

Mabrey pointed a critical finger at herself for a turnover that led to a Kia Nurse layup that tied the game with 3.6 seconds left. Mabrey called it the “dumbest play of my career.” But nobody’s going to remember it. Not for long. It’s almost like it never even happened.

Almost.

As down as Mabrey was, she had to keep pushing, keep playing. Keep believing.

“It’s really nerve-wracking,” she said. “We got in the huddle and were like, ‘Guys, it’s OK. It’s OK. We have five more minutes. Let’s get them again.’”

Get them and finish them. This time, for good.

Notre Dame had every reason to fold when five more minutes went up on the scoreboard. Instead, the Irish did what they do.

Fight.

Tied again at 89, confusion dominated the Irish thought process. Ogunbowale thought she would inbound the ball from the sideline in front of the Irish bench. No, maybe Jackie Young should take it. So she did. The play? Nobody really remembers the play. What was supposed to happen? Who was going where?

Who was supposed to get the ball? The Irish had one set called, then tried to call another. Nothing was coming together as planned. It was all coming apart. Again.

Ogunbowale made sure it stuck.

“We were trying to drive at the last possible minute,” she said. “Things happened and I was like, I’m just going to take it.”

It was going up. Big-time players make big-time shots. They get no bigger than that one.

“I don’t know, I guess I practice for this moment,” Ogunbowale said. “My teammates trust me to have the ball.”

Mabrey didn’t get a good look at the shot, but didn’t need to. She knew that if No. 24 had the ball in that situation, the shot was going up. And going in. That’s a shot that Ogunbowale hits all the time when she and Mabrey are playing on the Purcell Pavilion main floor late at night. With nobody watching.

On Friday, everybody was watching. Same kind of shot. Same kind of result.

Bucket.

“I saw that look in her eye that she has in the arena and said, ‘Oh, this is a (win),’” Mabrey said. “I didn’t even need to look. I said, 'It’s over.' I already knew.”

Mabrey also knew something else, knew something that she wanted to share with the rest of the college basketball world. Shout it from the center of the crazy locker room. Tweet it. Swarm her social media with it.

“Everybody in the country thought we were going to get blown out,” she said. “We knew we were going to win.”

Knew it after staggering through the final seconds of regulation. Knew it when overtime was needed. Knew it when they dominated the extra five minutes. Knew it.

In another corner of the locker room, Jessica Shepard just stood there trying to take in what this all means. She’s 40 minutes from winning a national championship. After having never before played in the NCAA tournament. Her voice was all but gone. Her left ankle throbbing, but the thought of that made any pain go away.

“It’s an unreal feeling,” she said. “It’s unbelievable.”

The arena was alive for the first semifinal of the night, which saw Mississippi State race back to beat Louisville in overtime. That the crowd was so into it late often is a concern for coaches whose teams have to work the second game. It often takes fans more than a few minutes to catch their collective breath, exhale, then get revved back up for the nightcap, which also featured two No. 1 seeds.

It didn’t take long for the fans to climb back into it, and not just because NBA legend Kobe Bryant was in attendance and shown on the video board during the first timeout. Not after Notre Dame made six of its first 10 shots and Connecticut missed 10 of its first 13. That gave the Irish a seven-point lead, 13-6, at the first media timeout.

Notre Dame needed a good start to have any chance. The Irish certainly got it.

Asked questions about the final frantic minutes of regulation and overtime, Mabrey finally had one for no one in particular.

“Where’s Kobe at?” she wondered aloud.

Notre Dame’s No. 24 was certainly Mamba-like.

And money.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale (24) celebrates after the Irish won the Notre Dame vs. UConn NCAA Women’s Tournament Final Four game Friday, March 30 inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA