Noie: One more opportunity awaits this Notre Dame women's team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

TAMPA, Fla. — A soft orange haze filtered through the curtains of the hotel room, signaling another day of summer-like weather beckoned out the other side.

It would get hot. It would get sunny. But there also would be reason Saturday to get inside for a couple of hours to the big arena on this city’s south end for one more media session before the biggest women’s college basketball game of the season the following day.

One final test awaits No. 1 seed Notre Dame before all of this ends. And it ALL will end — the nice weather, the toasty temperatures (which peaked toward 90 degrees on Saturday), the fresh feeling once you step outside. Even this Notre Dame program as everyone’s come to know it. Over.

Might as well make the most of it. Might as well make some history and snag a second-straight national championship, a chance Notre Dame (35-3) gets this evening (6 p.m., ESPN) against fellow No. 1 seed Baylor (38-1) at Amalie Arena.

Win or lose, close game or not, ending in regulation or an extra session or two, this is it for this chapter of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team. Two straight Final Fours. Two straight national championship games. Making headlines around the country on and off the court. Sometimes for reasons far beyond basketball. The Irish have taken this two-year journey (70 victories to six losses) as far as they can. They’ve maxed everything out. The games. The runs. The opportunities.

Time to take it a step further.

Time for this Notre Dame program to stand among the game’s greatest. Like Connecticut, the team it again sent home unhappy in the national semifinals. Like Tennessee and USC. Only three teams have won consecutive national championships. Notre Dame can make it four.

Its spot in history? Notre Dame’s not there yet, not even thinking about it. That’s for down the line if all works out today.

“You’re in kind of just 100 miles an hour fast-forward mode right now,” head coach Muffet McGraw said. “I don’t know anything about winning back-to-back. This is the first try for us. Hopefully we’ll be able to get it done.”

A whirlwind week — a whirlwind last three — has left everyone in the tournament from players to coaches to media and administrators running on adrenaline. Sleep doesn’t come easily, if at all. There’s always a next. A next road trip. A next opponent. A next flight. A next game. A next deadline. A next chapter.

Friday’s saw Notre Dame race back from a nine-point deficit with less than eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Less than eight minutes remaining in its season.

It was exhausting to watch.

Who can sleep when on such a rush? Irish senior forward Jessica Shepard apparently did. She secured nine hours — from 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. — after Friday’s game and awoke only after a text reminder of a mandatory 15-minute recovery session in the hotel pool.

“I don’t think you have enough time to think about being tired,” Shepard said. “You have another opportunity to play the game you love. You’re not thinking about being tired.”

Notre Dame’s traveling party didn’t leave Amalie Arena until early Saturday morning, then was back after another bus ride in from their airport-area hotel for the afternoon’s media sessions. McGraw up at the dais, where she made national headlines (understandably) defending the right of women late last week.

That was then. That news cycle had runs its course. Late Friday, McGraw insisted the rest of the weekend should be all about basketball. All about her team. One for the ages. One we might never see again.

A team with five starters who’ve rewritten the school record books. And beyond. They’ve combined for over 10,000 career points. That’s the most in the women’s game; the most in the men’s game. In any game. Maybe ever.

“We’re not going to see it for a while,” McGraw said. “I don’t imagine any team in the country with the parity that’s coming right now will have that kind of success.”

There sat those five starters, the backbone of this program, in separate breakout rooms. Arike Ogunbowale and Shepard down the main locker-room corridor. Marina Mabrey and Jackie Young and Brianna Turner in separate spaces across a VIP club area.

Those five first talked Saturday on the ride into downtown about the following evening being it. For this season. Maybe for their careers. They know its coming. Quickly.

“I don’t think it’s really hit yet,” Shepard said.

“We all know it’s going to be surreal,” Turner said. “We’re not taking any of those emotions into it.”

Today sits squarely on their shoulders. They know it. They embrace it. They weren’t expected to do much of anything at last year’s Final Four. Now, everything.

One more interview session. One more game. One chance to take this program where it’s never gone. This program will look a lot different next year. Heck, maybe even next month. But that’s for then. Today, Notre Dame has a chance to do what it did last spring up in Columbus, Ohio. Cut down nets. Bring back a championship, which would be the program’s third.

They understand the end is near, and that eventually, there’s nothing more they can do to hold it off. Also nothing more to give.

“I’ve given a lot to this program,” Ogunbowale said. “I’ve given everything I have.”

Forty final minutes. One final game. For these four seniors. For this version of Notre Dame women’s basketball.

“I want them to go out winners,” McGraw said. “and I think they do, too.”

Notre Dame players celebrate after Notre Dame’s 81-76 win over Connecticut in the NCAA Final Four on Friday in Tampa, Fla.