10 defining moments of the Notre Dame women's basketball championship season

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

So many twists and turns. A Notre Dame women’s basketball team with an amazing surplus of mental strength, was also incredibly fragile because of physical injuries.

Following are 10 defining moments from Notre Dame’s winding journey to the 2018 national title:

1. Shepard eligible

On Nov. 1, just hours before Notre Dame’s exhibition against Indiana of Pennsylvania, Jessica Shepard was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA.

The university had applied for a hardship waiver on her behalf that would excuse the Nebraska transfer from sitting out the season under traditional guidelines. The decision from the NCAA stretched weeks beyond the timetable expected.

“I was screaming and jumping up and down,” coach Muffet McGraw admitted of her joyous reaction when she received word at home that the junior forward was ruled eligible.

Given that All-American post player Brianna Turner was already out for the season due to injury, and that promising freshman center Mikayla Vaughn would soon be sidelined as well, it’s hard to imagine where the Irish might’ve been this season without Shepard, ultimately the team’s top rebounder and No. 2 scorer.

“We wouldn’t be here without her,” McGraw said at the Final Four.

2. Irish challenge UConn, sort of

The nation’s unanimous No. 1 in both major polls at the time — and for every week that would follow — Connecticut was viewed by many as this season’s champ in waiting when ND visited on Dec. 3.

The Huskies hadn’t been pushed yet.

The Irish pushed them, and on the road no less — but only until UConn seemed to do as it pleased down the stretch of an 80-71 win.

After ND took a 65-54 lead in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, the Huskies outscored the Irish 26-6 the rest of the way. And frighteningly, most of that came without two of UConn’s best players in Gabby Williams (migraine) and Katie Lou Samuelson (foot injury).

Nevertheless, ND had its first-hand blueprint on how to compete against UConn, and confirmation that a bundle of work remained.

“I thought we played well for 35 minutes,” McGraw said. “We had a stretch of ugly. Unfortunately, it was the last five minutes.”

3. Thompson out for season

Certainly the case can be made that all four season-ending knee injuries to Irish players were defining moments, because they were each events that hardened ND’s resolve.

But the one to Lili Thompson on Dec. 31, 2017 at Wake Forest was the one that staggered the Irish, the one that felt like piling on, the one that frankly scared them in a “who’s-next?” context, as star player Arike Ogunbowale would later admit.

ND knew before the season that Turner and backup guard Mychal Johnson would be out, and knew early on about Vaughn, a backup freshman, but now they were losing their only pure point guard, the transfer who had starred at Stanford and brought a wealth of NCAA Tourney experience.

Without Thompson, ND was down to just seven scholarship players.

The Irish set about splitting point guard duties among Marina Mabrey, Jackie Young and Ogunbowale, with Mabrey eventually claiming the bulk of that load.

“We’re going to focus on what we do have, not on what we don’t,” Mabrey declared.

4. Lost in Louisville

Obviously, this proved the team’s least defining moment relative to who the Irish wound up becoming, but it was a compelling stumble nonetheless.

The No. 3 Cardinals dealt ND its worst loss in 16 years, 100-67, on Jan. 11.

“I think this game had been coming,” McGraw said two days later. “We kept thinking, ‘Well, we won (standing 15-1 going into the contest), so what’s the big deal?’ So, hopefully, it sent a message to them. Maybe it took being embarrassed on national TV.”

Emphasized McGraw of her club that at times exhibited a “we’ll just outscore them” mindset, “We have got to commit to the defensive end, and until we do, we’re just not going to be a good team.”

“I think we have every capability, every necessary piece to win a national championship,” senior Kathryn Westbeld insisted two days later. “There are going to be bumps in the road, and this was definitely one of those big bumps for us, but it’s something we can learn from more than anything.”

5. Record rally sets tone

Just a week after the Louisville debacle, ND was getting hammered again, this time at home against Tennessee.

The Irish trailed 37-14 with seven minutes to go in the second quarter and were down 61-50 a minute into the fourth, before clawing back and ultimately win going away, 84-70.

It was the largest comeback victory in program history — and the game most commonly cited from then on by McGraw and players as the season’s turning point.

“I think we expected to win the game, so it was nice to have the comeback like that and get such a glorified win, but we have to move on,” Mabrey said. “We have a lot more wins we have to get.”

From there, the Irish also had a lot more double-digit deficits to overcome — they’d already won after trailing by 11 at Oregon State, by 12 against South Carolina and by 11 against Miami, and in the NCAA Tourney they would have to erase holes of 13 against Texas A&M, 11 in the national semifinal against UConn and 15 in the national championship against Mississippi State — but after what happened against the Vols, nothing seemed insurmountable.

6. Telling win in Tallahassee

A record comeback was gratifying, challenging UConn was encouraging and a series of lopsided wins over lesser opponents were expected, but the Irish still didn’t have a wire-to-wire command performance against a powerhouse.

That is, until they blasted No. 8 Florida State 100-69 on Jan. 28 in front of a record-setting crowd in Tallahassee.

It was a result that felt like a cleansing ritual for what had happened in Louisville. It came by virtually the same score — reversed, of course — came on the road, and came against none other than a Seminole club that had just beaten the host Cardinals 50-49 a week earlier.

Against FSU, ND shot 57 percent and the defense largely slowed a club that featured firepower both inside and outside.

“We have a short bench, but I thought we looked in pretty good shape — I thought we were running them,” McGraw said. “We’ve got six, seven people. We’re in great shape, we’re playing well together. I think everybody knows they can count on each other.”

7. ACC streak ends, but …

In their rematch with Louisville, the Irish demonstrated how far they’d come in the seven weeks since the first meeting.

They lost again, but this time it was 74-72 in a tense, 14-lead-change battle for the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament title.

Further, depth-lacking ND took consolation in knowing that the narrow defeat came while playing a third game in three days, something the team wouldn’t have to do again.

Ironically — given what was about to come — this Irish team became the first one during the program’s five years in the ACC not to win an outright regular-season title (instead sharing it with the Cardinals) or capture the ACC Tourney, after the previous four swept to those distinctions.

“It went right down to the wire,” Westbeld said of the loss, “and I don’t think any of us thought we played a particularly good game, so I think that’s really good to kind of have that in the back of our head. It gives us confidence for when we do play well, how good we actually can be.”

8. The Westbeld game

What happened for the Irish in the second round of the NCAA Tournament might be rejected by Hollywood on account of implausibility.

Those at Purcell Pavilion know otherwise.

Westbeld’s availability against Villanova, after she severely rolled her ankle in ND’s first-round win over Cal State Northridge, had been deemed a game-time decision.

It appeared the decision was made when she never warmed up and sat out the first half against the Wildcats.

The top-seeded Irish, though, struggled to a 45-45 tie against the ninth-seeded Wildcats.

Then, in a blending of Frank Capra with Willis Reed, Westbeld started the second half and ND soared to a 98-72 win — no matter that she scored just two points in 16 minutes.

“Her presence on the court calms everybody else,” Mabrey said of Westbeld. “She came into the game and reminded us that this isn’t how we play. She reminded us that we are going to play defense.”

9. Conquering UConn

With Ogunbowale swishing an 18-footer from the right wing at one second to go in overtime, the Irish knocked off top-ranked and unbeaten UConn 91-89 in the national semifinal.

The ability that ND demonstrated during the season’s final three months to rarely commit silly fouls proved pivotal. Against the nation’s No. 1 offense, the Irish committed just 11. Further, it came in a game that went an extra five minutes and in a game that ND opted to use just six players. The Irish hit 19-of-23 free throws to the Huskies’ 4-of-6.

It was a victory built in large part through a career-high 32 points and 11 rebounds from Young, in-game adjustments by the coaches and an ever-calmness from ND during huddles.

“Of course,” Young said of McGraw’s business approach throughout the frenzied contest. “That’s who she is. That’s who we’ve all become.”

10. Champs at last

Ogunbowale’s first Final Four game-winner was a straight-up beauty.

Her second one, the one to beat Mississippi State 61-58, was preceded by a curling path, included an obstructed view and entailed a need to fall off course a bit — kind of like ND’s whole season.

It dropped in, though, giving Notre Dame its first national crown in 17 years to the day, and the largest comeback win in NCAA title game history.

“I’m just so speechless at this point,” 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. … We lost our composure a little bit, but we got it back, and we just kept fighting.”

Notre Dame’s Marina Mabrey (3), Arike Ogunbowale (24) and Kathryn Westbeld (33) celebrate after winning the Notre Dame vs. Mississippi State NCAA Women’s Tournament National Championship game Sunday, April 1, inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)