Still the same Arike: Ogunbowale relies on resilient nature to survive in WNBA

Anthony Anderson I Tribune Correspondent
ND Insider

Arike Ogunbowale’s disposition resembles her style of play — full speed ahead, not much time for looking back.

That disposition has served her well so far in a promise-punctuated WNBA rookie season with the Dallas Wings.

It was already a disposition the Notre Dame All-American needed after her crushing missed free throw with 1.9 seconds left in last spring’s 82-81 national title game loss to Baylor.

Then she summoned it again just this past week after she set a WNBA single-game record for shooting futility in a 69-68 loss at New York.

Ogunbowale went 2-for-23 from the field, the worst percentage (8.7) in the league’s 23-year history for a player taking at least 20 shots.

A typical rookie’s confidence might’ve been shattered indefinitely.

But Ogunbowale is “atypical,” as Dallas coach Brian Agler describes her.

“She’s got that special gift of resiliency,” Agler said Wednesday night by phone. “If she does have a bad game, she doesn’t hang on to it, and the nature of this league is that you don’t have time to dwell. You gotta get better in the next one.”

Mission emphatically accomplished.

Less than 48 hours after that loss at New York, Ogunbowale roared ahead with a team-leading 19 points in an 89-86 comeback win Sunday over Minnesota. She shot 7-of-12 from the field, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range, to go with four assists.

She also delivered from the right wing a circus-like, over-the-shoulder, blind pass against a swarming double team to open teammate Theresa Plaisance at the top of the key. Plaisance then quickly bounced the ball to Kayla Thornton on the left side for the go-ahead triple.

“Just trying to stay focused,” Ogunbowale said Wednesday evening from Dallas of her bounce-back effort. “It’s a long season, so things like (the New York game) might happen, but it was a quick turnaround to our next one, which was good. If it was college, I probably would’ve sat and thought about it all week.”

Ah, sitting and thinking. It’s something that certainly could’ve absorbed Ogunbowale after the way her college career closed in April.

With the Irish trailing the Bears 82-80 at those 1.9 seconds to go, the Ice-Twice queen of the previous year’s Final Four missed the first of two free throws to effectively seal Notre Dame’s fate.

“I don’t think about college that way,” Ogunbowale said of whether the miss remains on her mind. “I think about the whole experience, and at this point, what’s the point? It’s a whole new day, a whole new team.”

That new team has been thrilled at choosing Ogunbowale as the overall No. 5 selection in the April draft.

She was named WNBA Rookie of the Month for June earlier this week.

“I didn’t even know that was a thing they do ’til I saw it,” Ogunbowale said with a slight laugh of whether it’s an award she was aspiring to claim.

Over her last four games — even with that 2-for-23, eight-point nightmare included — Ogunbowale has averaged 19.3 points with a career high of 25.

For the season, she’s at a team-leading 13.2 points, along with 1.9 assists against just 1.1 turnovers in 25.6 minutes per outing.

Shooting has been an admitted struggle at 35 percent on 2s and 29 percent on 3s, but she’s added 82 percent at the line.

After the Wings began the season 0-5 — Ogunbowale missed that fifth game with a sprained ankle — they’ve won four of their last six to move to 4-7 heading into Friday’s home game against Indiana.

Ogunbowale’s contribution has come under unusual circumstances.

“I think it’s an atypical rookie season from the standpoint that she comes into our team with a big target already on her back because of some of the people we’re missing,” Agler said. “Then second, she’s playing the point guard spot, which is not her natural position. She’s more of a scorer, but with that being said, she’s done really well taking all this on.”

Among the players missing for Dallas is another Notre Dame alum, four-time WNBA All-Star point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith.

Diggins-Smith, who gave birth to a boy in the spring, did participate in her first in-season practice Wednesday, but will not play in a game until at least Aug. 1, according to Agler.

Expected to make her season debut sooner than that, according to Agler, is injured Moriah Jefferson. The veteran point guard was part of the package acquired when Dallas met star forward Liz Cambage’s trade demand by dealing her to Las Vegas.

Also returning soon will be forward Glory Johnson. She averaged 6.7 points and a team-leading 7.0 rebounds over the Wings’ first six games before leaving to participate in EuroBasket, which ends Sunday.

In the meantime, Ogunbowale continues her initiation into pro play.

“It’s a more physical game,” Ogunbowale assessed. “We were all stars in college, so it’s the best of the best and it’s super competitive. It’s a learning process, but I’ve got experienced teammates helping me, and we’ve got a new coach, so we’re learning some things together.”

Agler, the only person who has coached two different WNBA franchises to titles — Seattle in 2010 and Los Angeles in 2016 — says Ogunbowale is “learning at a high rate.”

“In college, you’re facing players pretty much your age,” said Agler, who is in his 16th season as a WNBA head coach after resigning from LA last December. “Here you’re seeing players up to their late 20s into their 30s, so the experience those players have is strong. The younger players are always learning, and Arike is one I see making great strides as we move along.”

A native of Milwaukee, Ogunbowale, 22, is also dealing with sustained residency outside the Midwest for the first time.

“It’s a lot different,” she said of Dallas. “It’s super hot. I’m still learning my way. I don’t go to a lot of places outside my apartment and the gym, but some of my teammates live in the same complex, so I just enjoy hanging out with them.”

A former teammate will arrive next week thanks to the Wings hosting Los Angeles and Marina Mabrey, Ogunbowale’s former roommate and backcourt mate at Notre Dame.

“I don’t know what we’re doing yet,” Ogunbowale said, “but we’ll definitely be together.”

Ogunbowale’s parents, still in Milwaukee, attended her home opener on June 1 and are expected to make the trip to nearby Chicago for Sunday’s game at Wintrust Arena.

Count Agler as thankful for Ogunbowale’s background.

“She’s really coachable,” Agler said, “and her days playing for Notre Dame, and playing against the best competition, have really prepared her. I don’t know if you can get any better than the schedules they play. Right now, you take into consideration that she’s playing out of position and has really been a focal point of our opponents’ defenses, I only see her moving one direction. I mean, she’s going to have ups and downs, but I anticipate a steady incline for her.”

Dallas Wings’ Arike Ogunbowale, right, shoots over Connecticut Sun’s Alyssa Thomas during a preseason WNBA game May 14 in Uncasville, Conn.