UConn conquerors, Notre Dame and Mississippi State, hungry for a title

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correpsondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Notre Dame and Mississippi State could fight all day about which one pulled off the more seismic upset of No. 1 Connecticut.

Was it the Bulldogs in the women’s basketball national semifinals a year ago, when as a four-loss club they vaporized UConn’s NCAA record 111-game winning streak on Morgan William’s overtime buzzer beater?

Or was it the Irish in the national semifinals on Friday night, when as a three-loss club they conquered an undefeated Husky group that was on presumably higher upset alert, was more seasoned and owned even more compelling numbers than a year ago — before Arike Ogunbowale toppled all that with her own overtime game-winner?

Really, which upset is bigger doesn’t matter at the moment.

ND (34-3) and MSU (37-1) don’t have time to fight over that distinction.

They’ll be too busy Sunday fighting for a national title (6 p.m., ESPN).

And each side sounds like it is starving for it.

“Yes, we beat UConn, but that wasn’t for the national championship,” Irish guard Marina Mabrey said Saturday. “We had one goal in mind, and our goal was not to beat UConn. Our goal was to get a national championship. So we’ve got to keep our goal in mind, keep our mental focus on that.”

“We lost last year, so we have unfinished business,” Mississippi State first-team All-American senior Victoria Vivians said. “This year, we know what we have to do.”

The Dogs — who feature four battle-worn senior starters and a record-setting All-America junior in 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan — have never won a national title, falling to SEC rival South Carolina in that final a year ago.

Notre Dame’s lone title came in 2001, and the distance from that win is punctuated by going 0-for-4 in national championship appearances since then.

“We’re hungry for it, and we know we’re capable of it,” Ogunbowale said of ending the dry spell. “It’s definitely why I came to this school, to be able to compete for national titles.”

ND has four underclassmen standouts who have never appeared in a title game to State’s four senior starters who have, but the talent among the Irish keeps breaking through.

“The only thing worse than playing Connecticut is playing the team that beat them,” MSU coach Vic Schaefer said “They’re really good. Notre Dame is a heck of a team.”

So are the Bulldogs. Their only loss this season came against South Carolina in the SEC Tourney finale, and that was after MSU already disposed of the Gamecocks, 67-53, in the regular season.

Then on Friday, the Dogs advanced to the national championship with a 73-63 OT victory over Louisville — the same club that swept a pair of meetings from the Irish this season.

Mississippi State has gone 13-1 against teams in the Sagarin Ratings’ top 25, has compiled an average victory margin that is third-best in the nation, at 25.4, and has been suffocating on defense, allowing just 39 percent field-goal shooting and 56.3 points per game.

Hawking the opposition in both the forecourt and backcourt, MSU has forced 18.4 turnovers per game against its stellar schedule.

“I think that they’re a great defensive team,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “We haven’t seen that kind of pressure often. … We’ve got to rely on kind of bringing (the ball) up by committee. I don’t think one person will have the job of trying to attack their pressure. So we’ll just see if we can figure out who’s going to have the best chance of getting the ball over half court.”

Once it is over, McCowan awaits. She set a Final Four record with her 25 rebounds against Louisville on Friday night. Her 21 points to go with it gave her just the third-ever 20-20 game in Final Four history.

For the season, she’s averaging 18.2 points, 13.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks.

“She is a force inside, a tremendous player,” McGraw said of McCowan, who is shooting 61 percent from the field. “Works the boards like nobody I’ve ever seen. I mean, she is a tremendous rebounder. Just a phenomenal player inside. She’s so dominant, both ends of the floor, a tough matchup. We haven’t faced anybody like that. I mean, A’ja Wilson (national player of the year from South Carolina) was really mobile and did a lot more away from the basket, but just the sheer size.”

“She’s a great player, knows how to rebound, knows how to finish,” echoed 6-4 ND junior Jess Shepard, who will be matched on McCowan at least part of the time, be it in zone or man.

Shepard played with McCowan for USA Basketball heading into each’s senior year of high school, and described the Bulldog star Saturday as “improved significantly since she’s been in college.”

While McCowan became a full-time MSU starter just this season, Vivians has started all four of her years in Starkville.

This season, the 6-1 guard is at 19.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and is shooting 41 percent on 3-pointers.

“She’s just a great all-around player,” McGraw said. “She’s going to be a really tough matchup for us. When you have somebody with her size that can also put it on the floor and take it to the rim … she can do pretty much whatever she wants offensively.”

The other senior starters for the Dogs are Roshunda Johnson, Blair Schaefer and William, forever a folk hero in women’s basketball lore for that shot a year ago.

Johnson and Schaefer, the latter the coach’s daughter, are averaging 11.6 and 9.1 points, respectively. They’ve combined to hit 170-of-407 on 3-pointers for 41.8 percent.

“They’re a great all-around team,” Ogunbowale said, “have a great center, great perimeter shooters and guard play. It’ll be a good matchup.”

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Notre Dame (34-3) vs. Mississippi State (37-1) in NCAA Tournament national championship.

WHERE: Nationwide Arena (19,500), Columbus, Ohio.

WHEN: Sunday, 6 p.m.

TV: ESPN

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

NOTING: This is the first-ever meeting between Notre Dame and Mississippi State, though Bulldog head coach Vic Schaefer was an assistant responsible for defense at Texas A&M when the Aggies beat the Irish 76-70 in the 2011 national championship. … MSU’s never won a team title in any NCAA sport, while ND’s been credited with 25, including women’s basketball in 2001 … Irish leaders are Arike Ogunbwale (20.9 ppg, on pace to become the top single-season scorer in ND women's history), Jessica Shepard (15.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Jackie Young (14.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg), who is coming off a career-high 32 points against Connecticut, Marina Mabrey (14.6 ppg, 4.5 apg, 2.1 spg) and Kat Westbeld (7.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg).

QUOTING: “It was a late night, just getting back to the hotel, getting something to eat. I think the problem was falling asleep. … Everybody was trying. They slept in this morning, and that was good. Beth (Cunningham, assistant coach) was up all night watching film, but overall, I think everybody feels pretty good.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on what’s followed her team’s overtime win Friday against UConn that ended just before midnight Friday.

Notre Dame players watch Arike Ogunbowale's game-winning shot on a phone in the locker room after the Irish won 91-89 in OT Friday night over UConn in an NCAA Women’s Tournament Final Four game at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)