Transfers play big role in women's final
TAMPA, Fla. — Two transfers who felt right at home, and who immediately helped their teams to national championships, were all about gratitude Sunday night over where their winding roads have taken them.
One was Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard, her Irish unable to add a second straight crown, and she on this rare occasion unable to hold back her emotions.
The other was 5-foot-9 Baylor guard Chloe Jackson, who played the unlikely lead as the Bears wrecked ND’s quest for that back-to-back with an 82-81 victory.
Jackson arrived at Baylor only before this season as a graduate student, after starting her career at North Carolina State, then spending the next three years at LSU, where she was an All-SEC second-teamer while averaging 18.1 points last season.
With the Bears, though, she had to shift from off guard to point guard for the first time in her collegiate career, due to a teammate’s injury — similar to what Marina Mabrey ably did a year ago for the Irish.
On Sunday, joining the Bears’ likewise-effective primo post players, Jackson struck for a season-high 26 points (she was averaging 11.3), dealt a game-high six assists, played all of the last 9:43 with four fouls and broke an 80-all deadlock on a drive to the basket with 3.9 seconds left.
She is pursuing a master’s degree in divinity, and sounded the part as Baylor’s raucous celebration on the Amalie Arena court commenced.
“Just hard work, patience and believing in God,” Jackson said of what it took to take the title. “I never knew what my plan was going to be, but I believed in him all the way. I wouldn’t be here without him.”
Shepard wouldn’t be anywhere but Notre Dame given a choice to do it all again.
The 6-foot-4 forward arrived before last season as a junior transfer from Nebraska.
An appeal to the NCAA for immediate eligibility dragged on longer than usual. She was finally cleared the day of ND’s exhibition.
Asked after Sunday’s loss what she was feeling, Shepard paused for 12 seconds — an eternity in an already-solemn locker room — as tears began to drip. She pinched the area where her eyes merge with her nose, trying to compose herself.
“I’m just thankful I got to play here for two years,” Shepard said. “You know, the girls have been great,” she said. “The coaches, you can’t ask for a better coaching staff. It’s tough to go out like we did. We’re such a talented group, but I definitely made memories I’ll never forget with this team.”
Shepard sank two free throws with 16 seconds left for the 80-80 count that preceded Jackson’s game-winner. She finished with her 19th double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) to tie Natalie Achonwa’s single-season school record.
But there was no stopping Jackson, who consistently found seams in ND’s zone.
“I just wanted to come out being more aggressive,” said Jackson, who closed at 13-of-25 from the field. “I knew they were obviously going to be on our post players. I would have some open looks, just coming out early, looking for my shot.”
“We were actually trying to guard her,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw assured. “She just got a lot of really good shots. (She) shot over us, went by us, scored in pretty much any way. Really, really stepped up in the big moment.”
Tough to witness
When Baylor junior star Lauren Cox went down with a serious knee injury late in the third quarter and was wheeled off the court, the Bears were visibly shaken, but they weren’t the only ones.
Irish players and coaches quietly bit their lips and dropped their heads.
“I don’t think anybody wants to see that,” McGraw said of the injury. “We’ve had so many. Brings back bad memories. You kind of want to gather up, say a prayer in your head, hope she’s OK.”
A year earlier, Notre Dame had four players sidelined for all or the majority of the season, including star post Brianna Turner, who finished off her sterling comeback season Sunday.
“It’s always tough whenever a player goes down from either team,” Turner said. “But we have to play through injuries no matter what happens. We wanted to keep fighting no matter who was in or out of the game.”
The Bears led 62-50 when Cox was sidelined with 1:22 to go in the third period. She had eight points, eight rebounds and a game-high three blocks at the time.
Freshman NaLyssa Smith came in, though, and continued a sparkling performance. The freshman forward finished with 14 points and six rebounds in just 17 minutes.
Arike missed, but ...
Arike Ogunbowale’s missed free throw with 1.9 seconds left and Notre Dame trailing 82-80 grabbed the majority of postgame attention, but it also came on a night she scored the second-most points in NCAA women’s championship game history.
Ogunbowale poured in 31, behind only the 47 that Sheryl Swoopes scored for Texas Tech during an 84-82 win over Ohio State in 1993.
Ironically, Ogunbowale rose to sole possession of the second slot on the title-game scoring chart by making a line-drive free throw she was trying to miss so that the Irish would have a shot at the rebound.
ND was unable to commit the second of two fouls it needed to put Baylor in the bonus before time ran out.
Ogunbowale finished 11-of-27 from the field with three triples and 6-of-8 at the line.
Foiled from the field
Notre Dame — though it scrambled back from a 17-point second-quarter deficit to a 77-76 lead with 3:18 to go in the game — couldn’t overcome its worst shooting percentage of the season from the field.
Against Baylor’s defense, which led the nation going into the night at 31.6 allowed, the Irish shot 28-of-72 for 38.9 percent.
They almost made up for it, though, by converting 7-of-13 on 3-pointers (4-of-8 by Mabrey) and 18-of-22 at the line.
The Bears, however, shot 39-of-73 from the field for 53.4 percent — the highest percentage Notre Dame allowed all season. The previous high was 49.2 percent in the loss at North Carolina.
If the Irish make their 25th straight NCAA Tournament next season, win at least two postseason games for the 11th straight year and get the path they’ll probably want, they’ll wind up a second straight time in a virtual home away from home for regional play.
Fort Wayne is one of the four regional sites in 2020, joined by Dallas, Portland and Greenville, S.C.
The Final Four next season will be at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.