Notebook: Notre Dame players say they have plenty of gas left in tank

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio — With being down to seven scholarship players for three months now, with assorted injuries to those still active, with being shipped out West for regional play, with having the quickest turnaround among teams coming to the Final Four, with going to overtime in Friday’s late-night win over No. 1 Connecticut, and with the guard trio of Arike Ogunbowale, Marina Mabrey and Jackie Young regularly approaching 40-minute outings, Notre Dame's basketball players are constantly asked if they’re running out of gas.

“I mean, I feel like I just stopped at the gas station,” Mabrey countered Saturday afternoon, drawing several laughs from media.

“I feel like our motor is non-stop,” Mabrey said, “just because our team is so motivated and determined, and we have a team of competitors.

“You know,” Mabrey continued of those competitive streaks within the team, “we always joke about it like, ‘If you weren’t on my team, I’d hate you.’ Stuff like that, because you don’t like to go against players like that. We’re not going down without a fight.”

The final fight for the Irish (34-3) comes at 6 p.m. Sunday (ESPN) in the NCAA women’s basketball national championship against Mississippi State (37-1).

Like ND, the Bulldogs have endured an exhausting season, but now they can see the finish line, too.

“Of all the times when we were tired,” junior star Teaira McCowan said, “Coach (Vic Schaefer) was always right there by our side telling us that he was coaching us to win a national championship. He would always say that when we were tired.

“We have taken that and let that fuel us. You can rest when the season is over.”

Jess do it

Jessica Shepard acknowledged Saturday that she was extra motivated to go against UConn coaching legend Geno Auriemma last December and in Friday’s semifinals after something he said when the Notre Dame junior was still playing at Nebraska.

The Huskies whipped the Cornhuskers in early-season meetings during each of Shepard’s two seasons at Nebraska, 88-46 and 84-41.

“I saw a press conference after the game,” Shepard said of one of those contests, “and he was like, ‘She’s a great player, but some of the moves she’s missing. She’s just tired,’ and for me, that’s obviously something this year I didn’t want to come in and have him be able to say that.”

Shepard said she worked diligently to get in better shape this season, adding that when she landed at Nebraska, it was after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament as a high school senior and “I never got time to get in shape.”

ND’s No. 2 scorer and top rebounder says she bears no anger toward Auriemma, rather gratitude.

“Geno’s a Hall-of-Famer. It’s like (Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw),” Shepard said. “At the time, I had never played Notre Dame, but she probably would’ve said the same thing. Just to hear someone who was coaching the Olympic team at the time say something like that, I didn’t want that to be the reason I don’t reach my goals.”

Shepard, who has six double-doubles in her last seven games, also said Saturday that the ankle injury she suffered in Friday’s contest was not significant and that “my ankle will be fine” Sunday.

Kobe worship

Irish star Arike Ogunbowale and Mississippi State star Victoria Vivians will be combatants Sunday, but they share a mutual appreciation of Kobe Bryant — an appreciation that was returned by the superstar on Friday.

The former Los Angeles Lakers great was at the semifinals in support of UConn.

But he gave a Twitter shoutout to Irish star Ogunbowale after she scored 27 points and hit the game-winning shot against the Huskies.

“Big time shot Arike!” Bryant tweeted. “We are a @UConnWBB family, but we love seeing great players making great plays. I know my lil sis @Jewellloyd is happy. Well done @ndwbb good luck on Sunday #mambamentality.”

“Wow, my life is complete. The GOAT,” responded Ogunbowale on her Twitter account, and who went on to post other tweets related to her genuine excitement.

“He’s my favorite player,” Ogunbowale said Saturday. “That was amazing to get recognition from somebody you’ve looked up to all your life.”

After Friday’s opening semifinal, Vivians was able to have her photo taken with Bryant.

“Oh my God, that’s my idol,” Vivians said Saturday, still stirred up. “You all don’t even understand. I’ve looked up to him ever since I started focusing on basketball. I always wanted to be like him, being the go-to player.”

Vivians tallied a game-high 25 points in the Bulldogs’ 73-63 overtime win against Louisville.

“He told me, ‘Good game,’” Vivians said of Bryant, “and when he said that, I almost passed out.”

Notre Dame’s Marina Mabrey (3) reacts after a turnover during ND's 91-89 overtime win over UConn in an NCAA Women’s Tournament Final Four game Friday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)