Notre Dame delays Texas A&M's bright future with 87-80 win

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

CHICAGO

Texas A&M called attention to its bright future, while Notre Dame down the stretch reminded everybody that this game was still being played in the present.

Clutch queen Arike Ogunbowale’s right-wing 3-pointer with 6:45 to go marked the 17th and final lead change in a back-and-forth tussle as the Irish survived the physical Aggies, 87-80, in Saturday’s Chicago Regional women’s basketball semifinal at Wintrust Arena.

It was ND’s first single-digit win all season.

Ogunbowale’s only triple on an afternoon that the All-American poured in a career-high 34 points — 24 in the second half — started a string of seven straight ND points that gave the defending national champions a 76-69 lead with 4:11 to go. A&M got no closer than five the rest of the way.

No. 1 seed Notre Dame (33-3), once again getting key contributions from all four of its senior standouts and junior star Jackie Young, advanced to Monday’s 9 p.m. (EDT) Elite Eight matchup against No. 2 seed Stanford (31-4), which beat No. 11 Missouri State 55-46 Saturday night.

The fourth-seeded Aggies — with a four-sophomore, one-junior lineup — closed the season at 26-8.

“I do think experience plays a big factor when you get to this point in the tournament,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said after ND needed just about every ounce of that edge.

“Having been there before, having won this game, gone to the next round,” McGraw continued, “and with a senior group, we just have such veteran players who have all played on the big stage.”

“We just played arguably the best team right down to the wire,” A&M coach Gary Blair said, sounding content despite a loss.

“I’m really proud of them,” sophomore guard Chennedy Carter said of her teammates after she riddled the Irish much of the day with 35 points. “We’re a group of sophomores against seniors, potential draft picks. I was so proud of the way we fought tonight. We fought for four quarters and left it out there on the court.

“We’re going to be better next year.”

Ogunbowale added three steals to her 34 points for the Irish.

Jessica Shepard powered for 24 points, 14 rebounds and six assists, notching her team-leading 16th double-double.

Young scored 10 of her 14 points in the second half, that after the game was deadlocked 42-42 at the break, to go with eight rebounds.

Texas native Brianna Turner scored 12 points and blocked four shots, leaving her season total in the latter category at exactly 100.

Marina Mabrey, continuing to work through a recent knee injury, struggled to score for the third straight postseason game, but dished six assists against no turnovers with a 3-pointer.

“I thought Jessica Shepard with the double-double, she was unstoppable down low, and then Arike hit big shot after big shot,” McGraw said. “I thought (Ogunbowale’s) steal for a layup late in the game probably is the one that sealed the victory.

“Arike wins it with a defensive stop,” McGraw said in mock incredulousness as Ogunbowale smiled. “I think that should be the headline.”

Ogunbowale’s steal-and-go came just after her trey, pushing ND’s lead to 74-69.

The Irish stretched the spread to 83-74 at 55 seconds remaining for the largest margin of the day by either team.

“We lost the ballgame probably because of the paint points they got,” Blair said after his team was outscored 26-12 in the lane during the second half, “whether it was Arike posting up, whether it was (Shepard and Turner) inside.

“This is why they are better this year than they were last year — because of Turner,” Blair added. “She changes the game, rushes (opponents’) shots.”

Besides overcoming A&M’s own level of play, ND had to overcome the Aggies’ physicality. Young, Mabrey and Ogunbowale all crashed with resounding thuds to the floor at varying points in the game on contact plays, but only Young went out because of it, and that was for just two minutes in the first half.

“We knew coming into the game (because) our coaches did a great job of scouting that they were going to be a physical team,” Shepard said. “In the first half we kind of let them get too many rebounds and weren’t really controlling the glass, and then we did a much better job in the second half.”

Led by Shepard, ND rolled to a 45-28 rebounding advantage, including 25-10 in the second half. The Aggies entered the day with an average rebounding margin of plus-7.2.

The Irish also shot 52.2 percent from the field — becoming the first team all season to crack 50 percent against A&M, which was holding opponents to 36.6.

Carter’s 35 points for the Aggies included draining 7-of-12 on 3-pointers.

She was just 6-of-22 on her 2-pointers, but Blair was emphatic about his star’s willingness to take critical shots, about the opportunities Carter’s efforts created for teammates and about calling her an All-American.

In six career NCAA tourney games, Carter is now averaging 31.0 points and is 27-of-49 on 3-pointers.

“She’s an amazing player,” Ogunbowale said. “You can have two people on her, she gets a little bit of space, she’s shooting it in. She has a great stroke. She can get to the basket, she can shoot. So she’s hard to guard, but I think we got stops when it mattered.”

Kayla Wells scored 18 points for the Aggies, while fellow sophomore Ciera Johnson finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds.

Notre Dame earned its eighth Elite Eight spot in the last nine years, the lone exception coming in 2016, when the Irish lost to none other than Stanford in the Sweet 16.

ND also improved to 9-0 in the postseason over the last two seasons, their last loss also being to the Cardinal, 76-75 in a 2017 Regional final, two games after Turner was sidelined with her knee injury.

Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard (32) grabs one of her 14 rebounds in the 87-80 Irish win over Texas A&M in the NCAA tournament’s Chicago regional semifinal.