- After short-handed but resilient Notre Dame made a run to the Final Four, it was Arike Ogunbowale who was the hero not once, but twice to deliver the Irish their first national championship since 2001.
Arike Ogunbowale may have been the only person who believed what she was seeing. For the second time in three days, she hit a miracle shot at the buzzer to save her team’s season. Nationwide Arena in Columbus exploded in shock around her, but Ogunbowale was unsurprised. Of course Notre Dame beat Mississippi State 61–58 to win the program’s first title since 2001. Ogunbowale is made for these moments, she likes to say. She emphasizes her late game in practice. She always wants the ball. She never doubted they would win and she would be why.
Still, down 15 in the third quarter is not a great place to be. Ogunbowale, a junior guard, started the game 1 for 10 and, along with the rest of her teammates, struggled to find a rhythm on offense. They scored three points in the second quarter, the fewest in a regulation period in Final Four history. Mississippi State seemed impenetrable. Junior center Teaira McCowan, who at 6’7” towered over every other player on the court, finished the tournament with 100 rebounds. The previous record had been 75. Senior guard Victoria Vivians scored almost at will in the first half and ended up with 21 points. The Bulldogs went into halftime calm and collected and up 13. “Get every rebound,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer told them. “Get every rebound.”
Ogunbowale had her own halftime adjustment. She sliced through the defense in the third quarter, and as the pace picked up, she looked more and more like the player who had sunk that jumper to fell UConn in the semifinal two days earlier. Fourteen of her 18 points would come in the second half. The team seemed to gain confidence as she did, and the Irish ended the period on a 16–1 run.
But with Mississippi State up five with 1:40 to go, the game seemed over. Hadn’t we seen enough? This was the first time in the history of the tournament that both semifinals went to overtime. No one who has watched this weekend had any fingernails left anyway. The two teams who last toppled UConn—the Bulldogs a year ago in the semifinals, also on a last-second shot, and Notre Dame on Friday—would help usher in an era of more parity in the game, and that was excitement enough.
The Irish kept pushing. With 1:36 left, junior guard Marina Mabrey made Notre Dame’s first three-pointer of the night. Sophomore guard Jackie Young tied it at 58. McCowan missed the potential game-winning layup with 27.8 to go, then after two steals gave the Irish the ball, had the presence of mind to foul out and stop the clock. Schaefer had two more fouls to give, but he allowed Notre Dame to get the ball to Ogunbowale. She took the inbounds pass, raced to the corner and, falling to her left, released.
The final moments before the trophy presentation were chaotic. Everyone on the court thought the game was over, but a review showed there was 0.1 second on the clock. Someone had to be dispatched to find the Mississippi State players who had already retired to their locker room. Eventually the Bulldogs inbounded the ball and Notre Dame celebrated a second time. And then the confetti fell, and so did the tears.
The Irish had made the title game four times in the past seven years and came up short each one. In some ways this group was the most improbable of all: They lost four players to ACL tears in the past year, including two starters; only six Irish saw time in the championship game. (They like to point out that they finished the season with more ACL tears than losses; their final record is now 35–3.) This win completed the biggest comeback in title-game history. Standing on the podium, coach Muffet McGraw thanked all the Catholics who had spent Easter Sunday praying for her team. The players passed around the trophy. And Ogunbowale accepted her most outstanding player award and headed back to the locker room, where she could watch replays of her shot landing, just as she knew it would.