Notre Dame G Arike Ogunbowale's jumper sinks UConn in overtime

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The clock was roaring toward midnight — and not just figuratively — on Notre Dame’s Cinderella women’s basketball journey.

Teasingly, the Irish, in this nothing-can-dare-come-easy season, had already appeared to comfortably fit into their slipper twice on Friday — only to have it yanked away by the unconquerable stepmother that Connecticut can be.

Then Arike Ogunbowale filled that footwear perfectly, swishing an 18-footer from the right wing with one second left in overtime. The Huskies’ desperation full-court heave was knocked down by Jessica Shepard to clinch it.

Final: Notre Dame 91, UConn 89 — and with it, a No. 1-ranked, unbeaten Huskie team was eliminated in an overtime national semifinal for the second straight year.

At 11:57 p.m., the Irish (34-3) were the survivors in a grueling, ebb-and-tide “dogfight,” as coach Muffet McGraw described it, and on their way to Sunday night’s championship against Mississippi State (37-1). The Bulldogs also won their semifinal in OT, beating Louisville 73-67.

“I tried to shoot at the last possible second,” Ogunbowale said. “It wasn’t exactly the play we drew it up, but my teammates trusted me to get the shot. … I didn’t know for sure it was going in, but it felt good.”

“I swear it was in slow motion,” ND senior Kathryn Westbeld said of Ogunbowale’s jumper, which came after the junior coolly juked free of defender Napheesa Collier.

“Right when it left her hand, I was like, ‘That’s in, that’s cash,’” Westbeld said. “I’m so proud of her. She is truly an All-American player.”

ND appeared on the brink of clinching the victory in regulation after Ogunbowale hit a pair of free throws for a 79-74 spread with just 20.1 seconds to go.

Collier, though, drained a triple at 15 seconds left, and then Kia Nurse stole Notre Dame’s side inbound and tallied the game-tying layup at 10 seconds showing.

UConn (36-1) then had its own chance to advance after forcing still another Irish turnover at 3.6 seconds left, but Gabby Williams’ 12-footer as time expired was off the mark.

In overtime, the Irish repeated their flirtation with a heartbreaking collapse, again losing all of a five-point lead that they held with less than a minute to go.

First, Jackie Young — who had been 10-for-10 from the line before the attempt — missed a free throw at 44 seconds showing and ND up 89-84.

Then, after the Huskies trimmed the deficit to 89-86, Ogunbowale — who had been 6-for-6 from the line — missed two free throws at 38 seconds to go.

UConn’s Crystal Dangerfield converted a triple to knot the game at 89, setting the stage for Ogunbowale’s winner.

“It would’ve hurt to lose after I missed those two free throws,” Ogunbowale said, “but I definitely had to put it behind me. There was still time left.”

“We could’ve ended it in regulation, but they’re a great team,” Young said. “They just fought back. We’d get a lead, they’d come right back. They’d get a lead, we’d come right back. But we just fought and were able to pull off a win.”

“I think we started to get a little too happy too soon,” Westbeld conceded of the two five-point leads evaporating, “but we we stayed together. We made some big defensive plays of our own in there.”

Young made offensive plays all evening.

The sophomore poured in a game-high 32 points to obliterate her previous career high of 24. She finished 10-of-15 from the field with a pair of 3-pointers and 10-of-11 at the line.

“They were leaving me open at the beginning of the game,” Young said. “I hit my first shot, and then after that, I kind of got on a roll.”

“Jackie Young’s a good player, everybody found out,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said while acknowledging that his team’s first focuses were Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey.

“I knew she had it in her,” McGraw said of Young, “and to get a career high in the national semifinal against Connecticut, I don’t think you can ask for a better performance than what she gave tonight.”

Ogunbowale added 27 points and Shepard registered her sixth double-double in the last seven games with 15 points and 11 rebounds to go with five assists.

“We knew we were playing a great team, obviously, and we knew they had a lot of players that could decide the game,” Auriemma said. “They thought they had us put away a couple times, and we kept coming back and coming back, and we just ran out of time.”

Each team spurted to a double-digit lead, the Irish humming at the start for a 24-11 advantage by late in the first quarter, and then the Huskies leading by as many as 11 in the second period.

It stayed tight down the stretch, though, with a final count of 11 lead changes.

“Unbelievable game,” said a hoarse Shepard, who acknowledged that she was fighting a sore throat. “We knew each team was going to take their punches, and at the end of the day, we knew it would come down to one possession. I think we just did a great job locking in on defense.”

Each side blended defensive looks in an effort to keep the other off balance. Each offense still often thrived.

Collier led UConn with 24 points. The junior went 11-of-17 from the field.

Senior Azura Stevens added 19 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots in 28 minutes off the bench, junior Katie Lou Samuelson netted 16 points, and the versatile Williams finished her career with 12 points, 10 boards, seven assists and three blocked shots.

The Irish will shoot for their second women’s basketball national title in Sunday’s game, the first coming in 2001.

They’ve lost four title games since that victory — in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015, the last two to the Huskies.

“I think we are so beyond ready,” Westbeld said. “I think a national championship at Notre Dame is long overdue, and I think we’re all ready to get it.”

Notre Dame’s Jackie Young (5) celebrates during 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