Noie: Crushing conclusion to Notre Dame's national championship chase

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

TAMPA, Fla. — Riding a ridiculous wave of postseason success that seemed like it never would end for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team, it suddenly did.

Like that, wipeout.

Down big in the biggest game of the season, it looked like a repeat national championship dream would slide quietly and convincingly away Sunday at Amalie Arena. But the Irish had one run left. One big run.

That one, the last one, came up one big point short.

For Irish guard Arike Ogunbowale, Sunday was life on the other side of the Final Four spotlight. Last year’s star with her late-game shot making couldn’t make a late free throw with 1.9 seconds and the Irish down two. When the ball bounced out, so basically did Notre Dame’s quest to become the fourth team in the sport’s history to win consecutive national championships.

Baylor 82, Notre Dame 81.

“It’s tough,” Ogunbowale said. “You can’t do anything about that one.”

Can’t and never will. The leading scorer in school history can’t get that one shot back. Ever. She scored a lot of points, more than anyone to wear that uniform, but also will be remembered for the one — ONE! — she didn’t score. That’s life in the sports spotlight. Crazy fun one year, crushing the next.

Like that, it’s all over for Notre Dame’s talented starting lineup, the likes of which won’t be seen anytime soon, if ever. For Ogunbowale, who left the court near tears. For fellow senior Marina Mabrey, who decided in the biggest game to have her biggest game with 21 points and big-time shots at big-time moments.

“We finally punched back, but it took too long,” Mabrey said. “Coming back took too much out of us.”

Afterward, given the mandatory 15-minute cooling off period, it was difficult for the Irish to process all that happened. One minute, the Irish were down 11 heading into the final 10 minutes of the season. Then they’re up one in a fourth quarter that featured five ties and three lead changes the final 5:17. Then they’re sitting in a stone-quiet locker room where silence and sniffles dominated.

Senior forward Jessica Shepard fought through tears. Her college career also is over. Others spoke in near-whispers. Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw returned from the post-game press conference, arms folded, and just observed.

“Baylor came out and was just a better team than us today,” said Shepard, trying to find the right words, any words. “It didn’t come down to one play. It was the way we played for 40 minutes.”

For nearly 30, the Irish did un-Irish stuff. Couldn’t defend. Couldn’t make shots. Didn’t play with that swagger. That certainty.

“We had a really bad first three quarters,” Shepard said. “It hurt us.”

Out in the hallway, before the media was allowed in to ask questions nobody in an Irish uniform wanted to and really could answer, university president the Rev. John Jenkins quietly walked past. A year ago, after this game, he stood outside the locker room beaming and looking goofy while wearing a souvenir championship hat.

This year, he said nothing, barely looked up as he kept moving.

On the other side of the locker-room walls, Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” bounced out of the Amalie Arena speakers. Confetti flew. Nets were cut. Ceremonial hats and T-shirts were handed out.

Baylor had no plans of leaving the court anytime soon. Notre Dame seemingly couldn’t get out of the building quick enough. If the Irish charter could be airborne within the hour, it would have been.

The Irish had lived on the edge each of their last two tournament games, so why should Sunday be any different? Notre Dame trailed almost the entire night before its late comeback. The Irish started making shots. They started getting stops. They kept believing, just as they did when they erased fourth-quarter deficits to Stanford in the regional final and to Connecticut two nights earlier.

Somehow, it was going to happen again. Destiny surely said so. The Irish bench believed it. The fans behind it believed it. With Ogunbowale and Mabrey at the controls and Shepard finding her footing around the rim and Brianna Turner doing what she does, it had to happen.

It didn’t happen.

“Too little, too late,” McGraw said. “I thought we were going to win. We had to get one stop. We needed a little more on the defensive end.”

McGraw had harped on the defense all year. Even in games the Irish won by 30 and 40 points and sometimes flirted with 50. The defense wasn’t good. The defense needed to be better. Somewhere along the line, it was going to come back and bite the Irish.

It bit Sunday.

Players and coaches alike refused to pin all the blame on Ogunbowale’s miss. There were plenty of plays they could have made. Should have made. But everyone will focus on Ogunbowale, and her Kobe Bryant-like “Mamba Mentality” and the free throw the 80-percent shooter left short.

If you make the tough ones, gotta also make the easy ones.

“She wants it so bad,” McGraw said. “She’s going to have to put it behind her. It’s a good life lesson to learn.”

Life now goes on for this program. Minus four starters and maybe a fifth. Once the clock ran out Sunday, another started ticking for junior Jackie Young. She has 24 hours from the end of the season to decide whether to return for her senior year or jump to the WNBA.

Was this her last game in an Irish uniform?

“I honestly don’t know,” Young said. “I haven’t made a decision.”

The Bears threw a big punch early, which staggered the Irish, maybe earlier and more than any other opponent this season. The Irish were in serious trouble early. At some point, they had to show some fight. How would they respond?

Like champions. Former champions.

“We’ve done a lot for this program,” Mabrey said. “We did win a national championship.

“We should have got two.”

Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale (24) reacts on the court following Notre Dame’s 82-81 loss to Baylor in the NCAA women’s basketball national championship game. Ogunbowale missed a free throw with 1.9 seconds remaining as the Irish fell short.
Notre Dame’s starting five huddles before taking the court for the NCAA women’s basketball National Championship game Sunday against Baylor at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.
Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale (24) is consoled by teammate Jackie Young following Notre Dame’s 82-81 loss to Baylor in the NCAA women’s basketball national championship game. Ogunbowale missed a free throw with 1.9 seconds remaining as the Irish fell short.