Brevity rules the night for Arike Ogunbowale, Irish at Notre Dame awards celebration

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — After an NCAA Tournament run that extended longer than maybe most could’ve expected, and after a long autograph line that extended outside Purcell Pavilion and took 90 minutes to honor, Notre Dame’s national championship women’s basketball team also proved it can be the master of brevity.

“What I said last time,” junior Arike Ogunbowale added without coming fully up to the podium upon being presented the second of her two team MVP honors near the end of the team’s annual awards program, Tuesday evening at Purcell Pavilion.

And that was after what Ogunbowale said “last time” wasn’t much more than a polite thank you, either.

Others who offered similarly lightning-quick thanks at the mike upon receiving various awards included sophomore Jackie Young, junior Marina Mabrey and senior Kristina Nelson.

Young shared in a pair of the major team awards, taking co-defensive player of the year with Mabrey, and co-most improved with Nelson.

Then there was walk-on freshman Nicole Benz, who was accorded the Knute Rockne Student-Athlete Award, based in part on academic prowess.

“Go Irish!” was all Benz said in her acceptance while leaning sideways into the microphone.

“Amazing, a speech that lasted as long as her average playing time,” kidded master of ceremonies Bob Nagle.

A crowd estimated at 1,500 turned out to salute the national champions one more time.

Ogunbowale — who pulled the unprecedented women’s college basketball trick of hitting game-winning shots in the final second of both her team’s Final Four games, and set a program record by averaging 20.8 points on the season — took the Woody Miller MVP award, named for the late South Bend Tribune sports reporter, as well as the Notre Dame Monogram Club MVP award.

Freshman Mikayla Vaughn — one of ND’s four players who were sidelined for most or all of the season with major knee injuries — took the team’s spirit award. She, too, was quick with her gratitude.

Someone less so was director of athletics Jack Swarbrick, although even he started out by joking that coach Muffet McGraw had that painting on the podium of a fists-drawn Irish leprechaun strategically positioned just “over my shoulder to keep me on time.”

Swarbrick was effusive in his praise of this ND team that won the school’s second-ever national title in women’s basketball, overcoming its glut of serious injuries to go 35-3.

“Even among those national championships,” Swarbrick said of the many that Notre Dame has won in various sports, “not all are created equal. And what I would tell you — something you probably already know — is that a year from now, 10 years from now, a century from now, when people comment on the greatest achievements of Notre Dame athletics, this team this year will always be among them.”

Detailing examples of each, Swarbrick said the Irish prevailed “by being tougher than anybody else” and “by being smarter than everybody they played.”

“Now, before she points it out,” Swarbrick added of McGraw, “let me say that obviously one of the reasons we were the smarter team is everybody we faced in the Final Four was coached by a male head coach.”

That was meant with raucous applause, as was the introduction of McGraw herself.

Among the offerings from the Hall of Famer and 31st-year Irish coach, McGraw emphatically called her assistants the nation’s best group.

She also gave examples for each of her players, healthy and injured, for the key contributions they each made.

Some of the coach’s citings were statistical, like the team-leading 19 charges that Nelson drew while coming off the bench, and others were more anecdotal.

McGraw called Ogunbowale deserving of every bit of the national celebrity status Ogunbowale has attained on the heels of those game-winning shots.

She praised Mabrey as “the only player on the team, maybe the planet, who’s more competitive than I am,” and said of Kathryn Westbeld, “I don’t think I will ever see a more gutty performance than when she came out in the second half against Villanova.”

Westbeld, Nelson, Mychal Johnson and Lili Thompson each delivered senior speeches, and while those turns were longer than the thanks offered during the award presentations, they were generally short as well, though full of impassioned gratitude.

“I’ll be honest, my notes (were) deleted,” Thompson shared to laughter, “so I’m just winging it.”

Thompson winged it just fine, sort of like the Irish all season long whenever another imposing and unplanned obstacle smacked them right in the face.

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale shoots over Mississippi State’s Victoria Vivians to win the NCAA women’s basketball national championship April 1 in Columbus, Ohio. Ogunbowale was honored with two MVP honors Tuesday night at the annual awards celebration for the Irish team.