Noie: woNDerful: Arike Ogunbowale caps largest comeback in NCAA Championship history

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Inbound the ball and get some sort of shot with three seconds remaining in a tie game with a chance to win it all.

Notre Dame had this.

Had it.

Of course the Irish did.

Junior guard Arike Ogunbowale made sure of it.

After hitting the biggest shot in school history less than 48 hours earlier, Ogunbowale went even bigger. She tossed that magical moment aside and made yet another one. Her corner 3-pointer gave Notre Dame the 2018 national championship following a 61-58 victory over Mississippi State at Nationwide Arena.

Another can’t-believe-it moment from a team that never stopped believing.

"That last play, I can't even describe it," Ogunbowale said afterward. "It’s like a dream come true. To win a national title like that for my team is just crazy. To do that twice in one weekend on the biggest stage of college basketball is just crazy."

No further words would do the moment justice. Ogunbowale’s shot was almost suspended in time. It felt like it took two minutes for the two-plus seconds to unfold. When the ball found the rim, boy, was it true. Right there. On line.

Swish.

Officials reviewed video and determined additional time on the clock was needed. But both sides were already through the ceremonial handshake line. That included Irish coach Muffet McGraw, Ogunbowale, even a smiling university president the Rev. John Jenkins. Officials put 0.1 seconds back on the clock, but that was a formality.

This one was over. They knew. The fans knew. After 17 seasons of what-could-have-been and what-should-have-been and what wasn’t, after four championship game losses in five years, the trophy was headed back to Notre Dame (35-3) for the second time in school history.

First, Ogunbowale’s shot fell, and then confetti. From everywhere. The current Irish were up celebrating on the makeshift stage. Many former Irish were tearing it up and tearing up behind them.

The tournament’s unofficial theme song — Pink’s “What About Us” — blared. One line asks, “What about all the times you said you had all the answers?”

Notre Dame had them all postseason. All weekend. The opponent didn’t matter. Time and score didn’t matter. The Irish were going to win.

Improbably? Impossibly? Not for this team. They believed they could get there. Get here. And then win it. Then did.

"I'm just so speechless at this point," McGraw said. "We just kept fighting. Thank you Jesus on Easter Sunday."

National championship No. 2 of McGraw's Hall of Fame career also was career win No. 800.

Standing outside the Irish locker room, Father Jenkins sported a national championship white and blue and gold baseball hat. Somebody mentioned how good it looked on him.

"It feels good," he said.

A celebration had already started inside the Irish locker room as senior Kathryn Westbeld, an Ohio native, walked quietly down the hall with one of the nets around her neck and the championship trophy in her arms. McGraw's husband, Matt, followed a few steps later with the game ball.

"Unreal," Westbeld said. "I’m just so, so happy and so proud to be part of this organization and just feel the love. It’s such a surreal moment for me."

Minutes later, the coach and all five starters left for the interview dais. Everything was still moving so quickly. At light speed. Words wouldn't come quickly or easily up there. Smiles would.

The Irish trailed by as many as 15 in the second quarter. By the time the third had ended, and a 16-1 run ended with a Jessica Shepard lay-in, it was 41 all. One more quarter — 10 more minutes — until trophy time.

Winning time.

Irish time.

Everything turned in those third 10 minutes. The Bulldogs were cruising; the Irish were laboring. Then the big run got the building and Notre Dame back to life. Tired? Who could be tired? Not the Irish, not when they could ride that wave of emotion and energy and 24-11 scoring difference into the final 10 minutes. Ten really big minutes.

Everyone in the Notre Dame section stood for the fourth quarter. Forget edge-of-your-seat theater, this was don’t-need-your-seat drama. High stakes. High intensity. Who would flinch first? Make the season’s biggest play? Biggest shot? Biggest stop?

Down five with 1:54 left, the Irish had to find a way.

Of course they would, it's part of their postseason DNA.

Marina Mabrey had an answer. Three of them. Her wing 3 — the team’s first — made it 58-56. Jackie Young also had one and tied it at 58 with 44.1 seconds left. Friday’s late drama was simply an appetizer for Sunday. The final minute had it all. For it all.

Over 15 minutes into game action, the Irish had only 14 points. They looked lost on the offensive end of the floor, unsure of what play to run, whether to test the 6-foot-7 Teaira McGowan, pull-up against pressure or do anything that might get them a good look. An open look.

Mississippi State forced Notre Dame to guard for long stretches, which seemed to sap the Irish energy. They’d find some more when it mattered.

"We’re just relentless," Shepard said. "We’ve been down multiple times this year. For us, this is it. We have 20 minutes to go out there and play and we’re not going to end it like we were playing in the first half."

There’s something about playing teams from the Southeastern Conference that doesn’t do it for the Notre Dame offense. The Irish managed only 17 points — a season low — in the first half. Their previous low was 27 at home in January against Tennessee. Notre Dame trailed by 23 points but figured it all out to come back and win.

Just like Sunday.

This one was for former Irish guard Skylar Diggins, the hometown kid playing in her home state who scored 23 points but couldn’t deliver Notre Dame a championship against Texas A&M in 2011 in Indianapolis.

This one was for Natalie Novosel, then the team’s leading scorer who struggled to make shots in the 2012 final against Baylor in the rare air of Denver. This was for Natalie Achonwa, who shredded her knee during the 2014 postseason and had to watch the Irish come up short against Connecticut in Nashville.

This even was for former Irish guard Jewell Loyd, who struggled to make shots (4-of-18) in 2015 as Connecticut again beat Notre Dame in the title game in Tampa, Fla.

All the times when close wasn’t good enough.

This also is for the 2001 team that won the school’s first national championship. Four of the five starters were in the arena this weekend, including the point guard, Niele Ivey, now the associate head coach. Ivey has spent the last 17 seasons known as the point guard on the last Irish team to win a championship. On Saturday, she admitted she was ready to pass that torch to someone else. That it was time for a new Irish squad to become the last to win it all.

This also was for McGraw, who capped as storybook a season as any coach has had who’s been in the game for three decades. In the fall, McGraw took her spot among the game’s greats at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In the spring, she earned a truckload of coach of the year honors.

Along the way, the veteran Irish coach also mellowed, if only a bit. For so long, it had long been one way around the Notre Dame women’s basketball program — her way. No other way. This year, she loosened up and allowed her players to have more fun if fun was needed. It never distracted the group from their big-picture focus.

When the Irish needed to be ready, they always were ready.

Sunday was no exception.

Tip-off at Nationwide still was about four hours away, but the preparations for the big night, the big moment, had already commenced outside. Fans from both schools — really, all four with plenty of Connecticut and Louisville present even if those teams had long gone home — milled around outside on a sunny but chilly Easter afternoon. Maintenance workers were busy putting down segments of the red carpet that each team would walk on their way in. A D.J. played dance tunes. Nobody did. There was anticipation. Expectation.

Mississippi State’s bus rolled to a stop at the top of the red carpet at 4:15 p.m.; Notre Dame arrived six minutes later.

In a matter of hours, a champion would be crowned after another Ogunbowale shot would fall. Again.

Amazing.

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

— Michael Caterina (@MLCaterina) April 2, 2018

Notre Dame’s Marina Mabrey (3), from left, Kathryn Westbeld (33) Arike Ogunbowale (24) and Jackie Young (5) celebrate after Arike Ogunbowale (24) scored the winning 3-pointer in the final second of ND's title win over Mississippi State in the NCAA Women’s Tournament National Championship game, Sunday inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)