Arike Ogunbowale encores, delivers national title for Notre Dame

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Forget isolated miracles. Do you believe in encores?

Notre Dame’s second-ever women’s basketball national title came on Arike Ogunbowale’s second game-winning shot of the weekend and inspired two sets of Irish bedlam in a matter of seconds.

The steel-nerved junior guard swished a tie-breaking and apparently game-ending right-wing 3-pointer to momentarily set off a delirious celebration along the Irish sideline that spilled onto the court. But after order was restored, the officials ruled there should be 0.1 put on the clock.

It was a fitting end to this immeasurably improbable ND season — nothing easy.

That extra .01 didn’t matter, either.

Mississippi State’s desperation stab after the timeout at getting off a shot, without being allowed to make a true catch, went for naught as the Irish claimed the 61-58 victory Sunday night at Nationwide Arena.

Notre Dame — trailing by 15 points midway through the third quarter and by five with less than two minutes to go — completed a mesmerizing journey to the crown.

“I’m just so speechless at this point,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “To see this team come back from yet another huge deficit, to see Arike make an incredible shot, to see the resilience of a team that never gave up … Mississippi State was a tremendous defensive team. They really gave us a lot of problems in the first half. We lost our composure a little bit, but we got it back, and we just kept fighting.”

Sunday’s championship marked the fourth straight game that ND trailed at the half, but the 13-point deficit this time around was six more points than the previous largest at that junction.

Ogunbowale’s triple came on the heels of her 18-foot, game-winning shot with exactly one second left Friday as the Irish slayed No. 1 Connecticut 91-89 in overtime — and it came in a game in which she struggled mightily from the field for most of the evening.

“I mean, I just work at it and practice at it all the time,” Ogunbowale said of how she’s able to continually step up biggest in the biggest moments.

With Notre Dame down 58-53, Marina Mabrey drained her only 3-pointer of the night to narrow the gap to 58-56 at 1:34 to go.

At 44 seconds remaining, 6-foot Jackie Young posted up and scored inside for the 58-58 deadlock.

The Bulldogs’ 6-7 Teaira McCowan then missed inside at the other end against a swarming Irish defense — giving ND the ball and the chance to play for a last shot.

State, though, got a takeaway.

Then Mabrey got a tap steal right back near mid-court, leading McCowan to commit her fifth foul at 3.0 seconds showing.

“I believe so,” the Bulldogs’ Morgan William said of whether McCowan fouled on purpose to prevent a pass to one of two wide open Irish players underneath.

After a timeout giving the Irish the ball on the right side in the forecourt, Young inbounded to a curling Ogunbowale, who continued to her right with two hard dribbles against fellow All-American Victoria Vivians, then rose up for the game-winner — her only 3-pointer of the night.

“When I saw it travel a little bit, I thought so,” Ogunbowale said of whether she knew the shot was going in. “But that last play, there was just a lot going on. I can’t even describe it.”

Young could.

“Initially, we were looking for Jess,” Young said of Jessica Shepard, who led the Irish with 19 points, “but when I was looking at it, I didn’t like the way it looked. I knew if I threw it, it would have possibly been a turnover.

“So I talked to Arike before, and I was like, ‘If the matchup doesn’t look right or if Jess isn’t in the position that we’re looking for, then come back to the ball. And I just made sure that Arike was literally coming to the ball before I passed it.

“We had confidence in her,” Young said. “As soon as she put the shot up, I knew it was going in.”

“The kid made a heck of a shot,” State coach Vic Schaefer said. “I thought we defended it well right up to the point where the ball went through the net. Other than keeping her from catching it, I don’t know what else you could have done on it. I couldn’t have even fouled her fast enough.”

Notre Dame’s second title — no fooling — came on the same April 1 date as its other one in 2001, and was sealed with a typically gritty performance.

“Just like I saw on Friday night, there’s a tremendous passion, a relentlessness, a toughness and a resiliency to that bunch,” State coach Vic Schaefer said of the Irish. “They’re to be commended for that and for how they played today.

“At the same time,” Schaefer added, “my bunch has got the same thing. This is the toughest, most resilient team I’ve ever seen. Their competitive fire and competitive spirit is second to none.”

Notre Dame (35-3) won for the 20th time over its final 21 games, the only exception coming when it was playing for the third time in three days with their seven scholarship players and fell 74-72 to Louisville in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament final.

Mississippi State (37-2) lost in the national title game for the second straight year.

The Irish, often reliant on their powerful offense, ironically posted a season-low 61 points, but their sometimes-suspect defense came up huge.

ND caused State at least three shot-clock violations and forced a handful of ugly, empty heaves against that shot clock.

Fifth-year player Koko Nelson drew two of her signature charges for the Irish, and the Bulldogs finished just 22-of-59 from the field for 37 percent. They also had 15 turnovers.

“We had a hard time scoring tonight, and we got some really good looks,” Schaefer said. “We got deep in the shot clock, which is uncharacteristic of us. Part of that’s execution, part of that, you gotta give them credit. We’ve been playing (against) that zone all year. It’s not like we just started it.”

On a crazy night to cap this crazy season, there was appropriately a bountiful helping of crazy eights.

McGraw, who was coaching the Irish in the Final Four for the eighth time, earned her 800th career win in her 31st season at ND and her 888th victory overall.

But there was no eight more crazy than the eight minutes on the nose that her team’s usually high-octane Irish offense went between points in the first half.

Notre Dame had started strong, bolting to leads of 6-0 and 10-4 over the first five-plus minutes, but the hawking State defense soon began to unravel the Irish in the opening half.

An 11-0 spree by the Bulldogs gave them a 17-12 lead.

Trailing 17-14 after one period, ND’s overall drought morphed into that eight minutes before Shepard spun in for an old-fashioned three-point play at the 3:08 mark of the second quarter to end a 7-0 State spurt and close the gap to 24-17.

But the Irish would not score again before halftime, ending that second period with just those three points and trailing 30-17.

ND’s previous low in a quarter was nine points against Connecticut, and its previous low in a half was 27 against Tennessee.

Ogunbowale, voted the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, finished with 18 points despite an airball trey and a bricked layup down the stretch.

She finished just 6-of-21 from the field, but that was after she stood 1-of-10 at the intermission.

Shepard, who joined Ogunbowale on the all-tournament team, went 8-of-10 from the field and 3-of-3 at the line for her 19 points, despite giving away three inches when guarded by McCowan.

“I think we knew we had a bit of a mismatch when I was at the high post and driving on McCowan,” Shepard said. “When you have great shooters around you, it opens things up. To have a one-on-one matchup makes it a lot easier.”

Mabrey added 10 points and a team-high three steals, but had to overcome committing nine of ND’s 17 turnovers.

In her final college game, senior Kathryn Westbeld led the Irish with nine rebounds to go with six points.

“It’s honestly so surreal right now,” Westbeld said of winning a title 75 miles from her home in Kettering, Ohio. “Just trying to process everything.”

Vivians led all scorers with 21 points and added nine rebounds. She and McCowan joined Ogunbowale and Shepard on the all-tourney team, as did UConn’s Napheesa Collier.

McCowan beat up ND on the glass with 17 rebounds, six of them offensive, but went just 7-of-19 from the field and 4-of-8 at the line on her way to 18 points.

The Bulldogs finished 10-of-17 at the line overall, to the winners’ 15-of-17.

Notre Dame snapped its string of four straight title-game losses, those defeats coming in 2011, '12, '14 and '15.

“I think we’ve established a great culture,” McGraw said, “starting in 2011, when we were able to get back to the Final Four for the first time in 10 years, and I think the culture perpetuates itself, starting with the seniors and how they address the team, how they indoctrinate the freshmen into our culture and work ethic.”

Ogunbowale finished with the highest season scoring average in Irish history at 20.8, bettering Katryna Gaither’s standard of 20.4 in 1996-97.

ND’s title capped a season in which three players — Mychal Johnson, Mikayla Vaughn and Lili Thompson suffered season-ending knee injuries — that after All-American Brianna Turner sat out the season after sustaining her own knee injury last March.

McGraw said ND’s players on the floor did it on behalf of their sidelined teammates and on behalf of past Irish players.

“This team is really special just because of their personality,” McGraw said. “You know what, they’re a fun team. They have a great time together. They’re always enjoying each other’s company on and off the court. They have fun in the locker room.

“The season’s a grind,” the coach continued. “I mean, it’s a long season. So you have to have a passion for the game, and you have to be able to enjoy it, and this team, probably more than any other I’ve had, enjoys it.”

A GIF worthy National Championship celebration. @SBTribune#NDInsiderpic.twitter.com/CHbfF55jnA

— Michael Caterina (@MLCaterina) April 2, 2018

Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale (24) and Teaira McCowan (15) compete for the ball during the Notre Dame-Mississippi State NCAA Women's Tournament National Championship game Sunday inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)