WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

Noie: How did that happen? With Notre Dame it just does

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

TAMPA, Fla. — They were done, their run toward a possible national championship repeat all but over.

Maybe another time with another team, but not this time, not this team.

Right?

Well…

Right?

Wrong.

Somehow, this Notre Dame women’s basketball team keeps finding ways to win games. Keeps finding a way out when seemingly there is none. Keeps fighting. Keeps playing. Keeps believing.

And keeps winning. Big games. The biggest of games. Games that are sure to define this program’s legacy.

On the heels of one of the craziest, wildest, most unpredictable Final Fours in memory — last spring in Columbus, Ohio — Notre Dame couldn’t possibly do anything else that would pass as an encore, something that might rival last season’s run to its second national championship in school history.

Then it did. Did it against its rival, a team it now all but owns in the national semifinals. Six times Notre Dame and Connecticut have met to advance to the national championship. Notre Dame has won five following Friday’s 81-76 roar-back win in front of a sellout crowd of 20,062 at Amalie Arena.

Down nine (64-55) with 7:56 remaining and seemingly headed home, the Irish gathered their collective confidence and resolve and desire and everything else to storm back and stun the Huskies and everyone else in the building.

Wait, what just happened? Oh, THAT just happened. Notre Dame happened. Of course.

Afterward, Irish guard Arike Ogunbowale who again morphed into ARIKE OGUNBOWALE in a Final Four fourth quarter that included 14 points, jumped over the row of seats that serve as the Irish bench to head into the stands for hugs with loved ones. Jessica Shepard raced off the court and high-fived Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. Other team personnel danced with university president John Jenkins, C.S.C.

It went from funeral-like to New Year’s Eve in a blink. Like that. Headed out one minute, moving on the next. How does that happen? How does a veteran group that’s done so much together collectively decide that 'No, we’re not going to do this together?'

“It’s just the chemistry that we have, the fight, the huddles,” Ogunbowale said. “We talk to each other like we’ve been here before. We had to keep fighting.”

One huddle — with only the starters when the Irish were down nine — helped kick-start the comeback. The five starters — four seniors and a junior — collectively decided that they needed to get stops. They needed to make shots. They needed to play. They had to do something. They didn’t know what, but it was go time.

Away the Irish went.

“We’ve got fight,” Shepard said. “We’ve got four seniors who aren’t going to be happy without winning the national championship.”

As the final seconds ticked off, Irish coach Muffet McGraw, who was a picture of such seriousness much of the night, wheeled away from the court and made eye contact with her husband, Matt, in the first row of the stands. She smiled the biggest of smiles as if to say, 'How about that?'

How about that is right.

If nobody would have believed last season’s script, nobody would believe this one.

Just when you think it couldn’t get any more unbelievable, it did. As a result, Notre Dame (35-3) sits 40 minutes away from its championship repeat. Notre Dame and Baylor (38-1) meet Sunday for the national championship. As Friday’s game went final, a fan in the front row of the Notre Dame seating section may have said it best. Said it to no one in particular. Said what many Irish fans might have been thinking.

“We’ve gotta buy more beer!”

A lot more.

If the first half was a slog of two teams trying to find its collective rhythm, the second was sweet. Everything you’d want in a national semifinal. Big swings of emotion and momentum. Big shots. Big plays. A big deal on a big night.

The defenses tightened. The stakes were raised. Every possession meant nearly everything. Who was going to make that one push that was going to propel them into Sunday night? Would the repeat dream live another day or dissolve into the sticky Florida night?

Katie Lou Samuelson was a handful in the second half. So was Ogunbowale. And Brianna Turner. Friday featured nine ties and a staggering 26 lead changes, 18 of those in the second half.

“Two great teams battling in the Final Four,” Shepard said.

Digging out of deficits that threaten to hit double digits have been the norm for Notre Dame this week. The Irish had to scramble back from a nine-point deficit in the second half earlier in the week against Stanford in the Chicago Regional championship. They made that one look effortless. After scoring 26 points the first two quarters that night, they erupted for 26 in the third quarter.

“It was crazy,” Young said. “We stayed together, knew we had to get stops. We were able to do that. We were able to come together and pull out a huge win.”

After trailing by nine, Notre Dame tied it at 68 with 3:30 left. The Irish then closed on a 13-8 run. That included nine straight over the final 90 seconds before a late Connecticut 3, which mattered nothing.

“Players feed off that,” Young said of the Irish burst. “Once you start scoring, you get an adrenaline rush and just keep going.”

Connecticut can keep rolling through opponents in the American Athletic Conference. Keep getting to Final Fours. But it keeps coming up short. Keeps going home empty-handed, now for the third year in a row.

“We’re incredibly disappointed that we didn’t win the game” said coach Geno Auriemma. “But we played a great team. They played really, really well when they had to.”

That they did. Again.

Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale, left, and Marina Mabrey (3) celebrate on the court in the final moments of Notre Dame's 81-76 win over Connecticut in the NCAA Final Four semifinal on Saturday inside Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.