Noie: More in-the-moment magic for Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHICAGO — Never one to run from a challenge, especially one as large as this was becoming, Notre Dame senior guard Arike Ogunbowale certainly wasn’t going to do something new Saturday.

Not now, not in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament. This is postseason. Notre Dame’s time. Her time. So she was going to dive deep, embrace everything and deliver, much like she did nearly a year ago to help the Irish win their second national championship.

Ogunbowale of 2019 looked a whole lot like Ogunbowale of 2018 early Saturday evening at a rocking Wintrust Arena during an 87-80 victory over No. 4 Texas A&M in a Chicago Regional semifinal.

The Irish will meet No. 2 Stanford on Monday at 9 p.m. EDT with another trip to the Final Four on the line. The Cardinal defeated No. 11 Missouri State 55-46 Saturday night.

If Ogunbowale felt pressure, she certainly didn’t admit it. If she saw her college career flash before her eyes in a fourth quarter that threatened to go either way, she wasn’t going to show it. She was going to do what she always does.

Get buckets. Lot of them. Big ones.

“It’s just fun, really exciting to be out there,” she said. “I’m just having fun playing the game I love. It’s amazing when you’re in the zone and you think everything’s going in at that time.”

Maybe amazing last season. This season? Expected. A play needs to be made, Ogunbowale’s going to make it.

“The bigger the moment, the bigger she plays,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “She has just got that mentality of ‘I want the ball in a clutch situation.’”

Just like her idol, Kobe Bryant, a.k.a. the Black Mamba. That’s why she wears No. 24. That’s why she attacks the way he once did. At one point Saturday, a fan in the front row of the arena stands yelled at Ogunbowale, “Go get it, Black Mamba.”

She did.

Of Notre Dame’s 33 victories this season, Saturday’s was the first decided by single digits. This one was that close. The Irish felt like they didn’t play their best when the needed to be at their best. They seemingly showed some signs of game pressure. Of tournament pressure. Of win-or-go-home pressure.

Buzz-saw victories take teams only so far in March. Eventually, they’re going to have to buckle down and be really good in game situations. After winning its first two tournament games by an average of 35 points, Notre Dame was tested by Texas A&M. Big time.

The Irish aced this exam, responded how champions respond. They trailed for the first time in the NCAA tournament. They were down by as many as three and trailed for over six minutes. That hadn’t happened for this team in seemingly forever.

“We can play with the big girls,” said Texas A&M coach Gary Blair. “We just showed it.”

But when the Irish needed to deliver, one of the best girls delivered.

That means No. 24 delivered.

“I wouldn’t say we needed it,” Ogunbowale said of the too-close-for-comfort victory. “It’s good that we have it now to prepare for tight games. As the teams get better, that’s how it’s going to be. I’m glad we came out on top.”

Never before in a college game had Ogunbowale scored as many points (34) as she did Saturday. Of the 34, a dozen were delivered in the decisive fourth quarter. She took five shots; she made four. A 10-minute period packed with pressure featured two ties and three lead changes before Ogunbowale decided with 6:45 remaining in a tie game that enough was enough.

“It’s just the moment,” she said. “I just play my game. Teammates behind me, crowd behind me, I just get in the moment.”

The sequence looked a whole lot like it did last spring in Columbus, Ohio. Options running out; Irish with the ball. Ogunbowale with it on the right wing. Last year in a Final Four semifinal against Connecticut, she was opposite the Irish bench. This time, she was in front of it. Last year, it was a big basket just inside the 3-point arc that gave the Irish a boost. This time, she was behind the 3-point line.

Bucket.

She returned with a layup off a steal next time down to bump the Irish into a five-point lead, one that they never would relinquish.

“She’s so ready for these moments,” fellow senior guard Marina Mabrey said of her backcourt mate. “She’s unstoppable in transition.”

It reached a point where the stoic and serious Ogunbowale couldn’t help herself. She let loose with a primal scream right at A&M guard Shambria Washington after a late lay-up. Officials immediately hit her with a technical.

McGraw looked like she wanted to take her lucky green scarf, the one that was around her neck last April in Columbus, and strangle her star guard. Texas A&M made two free throws and got the ball back, but it was already basically over with 52 seconds remaining.

Ogunbowale fessed up afterward that she should have kept her cool. But her emotions got the best of her. And that’s fine. This is the NCAA tournament, not some ho-hum, non-conference home game in November. Let it out. It’s the last time around for her. For these Irish. Do it. Do it all. Live it. Love it.

“I’m glad the game wasn’t closer than it was,” Ogunbowale said. “Definitely shouldn’t do that, but I was in the moment.”

Naturally.

Notre Dame senior guard Arike Ogunbowale delivered again during Saturday’s NCAA tournament game against Texas A&M.