- Nothing about Notre Dame's season went according to plan. Then a broken play with three seconds left in the title game revealed Arike Ogunbowale and the Irish’s destiny.
COLUMBUS — On Sunday night, with three seconds left in the national championship game and the score tied at 58, Arike Ogunbowale was not supposed to get the chance to be a hero. Her name wasn’t supposed to trend online, her face not supposed to be shown on every television across the country. Kobe Bryant wasn’t supposed tweet at her—not again, that is.
The sidelines out-of-bounds play that Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw drew up in the huddle was created specifically for Jessica Shepard. The forward had been the Irish’s most efficient player all game, and Mississippi State’s dominating center, Teaira McCowan, had just fouled out. It was the play that made the most sense. But sometimes things don’t have to make sense.
The Irish had withstood a 26–7 first half run, had looked scared and shook, and then had steadily clawed their way back into the game. Resilience—it’s a word that McGraw had used to describe her squad all week, repeating it over and over like a mantra. This was a team that lost four key players, including two starters, to ACL tears and used a six-player rotation throughout the tournament. A team that suffered one of the worst losses in program history, a 33-point shellacking to Louisville, less than three months ago. It wasn’t supposed to be a No. 1 seed, wasn’t supposed to beat UConn in the Final Four, and wasn’t supposed to win this game.
The play was designed for Shepard to stand on the right block and fake like she was going to set a screen across the lane, before she’d quickly pivot back to retrieve the inbounds pass from Jackie Young. Bulldogs guard Blair Schaefer had been instructed to sag off Young and float down to front Shepard, doubling the entry pass. Victoria Vivians and Roshunda Johnson were to deny Ogunbowale, to not let her even get a touch, not after the shot she had hit just two nights earlier. But Young had a feeling that it might be difficult to pass into the post; so after the huddle broke, she approached Ogunbowale.
“If I can’t get it in to Jess,” she said, “come get the ball.”
As the play began, Young quickly realized that it’d be impossible to get the ball safely over Schaefer and in to Shepard down low. So she turned her gaze towards the play’s second option but saw Vivians standing directly between her and her teammate, desperately attempting to prevent the pass. The right hand of the referee was hanging pendant by her side, pacing off the five-second count, currently holding out four fingers.
Ogunbowale swum her right arm around Vivian’s left shoulder, manipulating leverage to get free like a defensive end blowing past a left tackle for a sack. The pass came. She took one dribble into the right corner. Then another. Vivians gave chase, lunging towards Ogunbowale as she planted her feet behind the arc and lifted. But she was off-balance, falling backwards and to her right. It was an impossible shot, not the one that Ogunbowale wanted.
At this moment, as he watched his younger sister’s momentum carry her out of bounds, Dare Ogunbowale admits he was a bit skeptical. He had seen Arike hit game-winning shots her whole life, had seen it just 48 hours earlier, on the other side of the same exact court, when she pulled up with one second left in overtime and ended the Huskies’ season. But this shot, at this moment, on this stage? This didn’t seem possible.
But then it fell through the net and Arike Ogunbowale was a hero, once again.
“She’s special,” Dare said on the court after the game, blue and gold confetti at his feet. “And special things happen to special people.”
There is an old photograph that her parents like to talk about. It’s of their youngest child, standing in the backyard of their Wisconsin home, wearing only a diaper. They had all been outside, for reasons that have since been forgotten, and their two-year-old daughter had wandered off. When they found her, she was standing in the grass, a regulation-size basketball in her hands, gazing up at the 10-foot-high hoop. Arike Ogunbowale wanted to shoot.
When she turned three, her parents bought her a blue and orange Fisher-Price basket and put it in her room. Arike would toss mini basketballs at the rim all day, and as she put up shot after shot, her mother, Yolanda, would whisper a single word in her ear over and over. Concentrate, her mother would say, and then Arike would breathe, repeat the word back and shoot. Soon she didn’t miss.
Yolanda placed her daughter on a fifth grade basketball team when Arike was in the first grade. Three years later an AAU coach saw her play at a community center and recruited her onto his team. When she was 10 she played on the 13-year-old team, and the 12-year-old team, and the 11-year-old team, sometimes switching courts at halftime depending on which team needed her services the most. Fans would stand five rows deep at these tournaments, huddled around the court, hoping for just a glance of the adolescent girl they had heard stories about. The first letter from a college coach arrived at the house when she was in seventh grade. By the time she was in eighth, everyone in the Wisconsin basketball world knew her name. Arike.
When she entered high school, she was already being hailed as the best offensive player in Wisconsin history. She was so good, so much better than everyone else, that she was often complacent in practice, not hustling on defense and rarely moving without the ball. So her coach, Scott Witt, devised drills to simulate competitive situations. He’d set up scrimmages where the teams were stacked against her, four starters on one side and Arike and the bench players on the other. Losing team had to run. Now Arike would play. Running floaters, turnaround jumpers, 30-footers from out of bounds—now Arike would hit them all.
“It had to be something competitive, had to be something on the line,” Witt says. “She would make every single play when the game was on the line.”
When Ogunbowale got to Notre Dame in 2015, she played only 19.3 minutes per game her freshman year. She was frustrated. It was a new experience, not being the best player on her team. She had never had to come off the bench. Regular phone calls with her parents became venting sessions. She had been talking to some of her friends from the AAU circuit and they were starters on other, less competitive teams. She didn’t want to transfer. But she thought about it.
“You can leave and go someplace else and be the big fish right away,” her parents told her. “Or you can stay at Notre Dame and work and become the big fish here.”
A few hours before the start of the national championship, the Irish players were seated around three circular tables in a conference room at the Marriott Columbus. They had just finished their last session of film study when Niele Ivey pulled out her old No. 33 blue and gold jersey and held it up for the whole team to see. Ivey, now the team’s associate head coach, had worn the jersey exactly 17 years earlier, when she was the starting point guard on the only team in program history to win a national title. That team stood alone in Notre Dame history, and Ivey wanted some company.
“Something made me pack this jersey,” she told her players. “I felt like you guys could do something special.”
Ivey told the team to visualize what they would do to celebrate a championship, to really think about it. So the team sat silently at their tables for 10 seconds, their eyes closed, and thought about the confetti, the fireworks, the nets being cut and the banners being raised. Then Ivey reminded them all that while Friday night’s win over UConn was a great moment and memory, it would mean nothing if they don’t win this next game.
“That wasn’t the championship,” Ivey said. “Tonight is.”
McGraw and the Irish have been chasing the success of Ivey’s 2001 team for nearly two decades, continually coming up just short of the ultimate goal. From 2011 through ’15, Notre Dame made five consecutive Final Four appearances and lost in the championship game four times. They’d had teams with multiple All-Americas and seasons where they didn’t face nearly as much adversity as this year’s squad did. Which is why, on the Saturday before the championship, McGraw admitted that the team’s run this season had been the most rewarding of her career. There had been so many setbacks, the coach said, so much adversity.
First it was All-America Brianna Turner, the team’s most decorated returning player, who tore her ACL in last year’s NCAA tournament and was forced to miss the entire season. Then it was Mychal Johnson, the team’s likely starting point guard, who went down with an ACL tear in October. Mikayla Vaughn, Turner’s replacement in the post, dropped in November. Point guard Lili Thompson, who was leading the team in both assists and steals, was the next (and mercifully last) to fall, in January.
At the time, the team wondered what could possibly be going on. Were they cursed? Is it fixable? They brought in a specialist who focused on preventative stretches. They cut practices short by half an hour and turned Monday into a second off day—only film study and massages allowed. McGraw began playing mostly zone defense, as she had to be constantly worried about foul trouble with her new six-player rotation. The Irish’s margin of error shrunk to nothing.
But after the initial shock passed, the coaches looked at their remaining roster and realized that even though they lost a lot of talent, they had a lot of talent still left at their disposal, too; they were inspired, confident even. They figured they could still make a run. Then Louisville happened.
A week after Thompson’s injury, the Irish were humiliated at home by the Cardinals. The 100–67 score barely did the drubbing justice. McGraw told her dejected players after the game that it was embarrassing, but that nobody felt sorry for them so they shouldn’t feel sorry for themselves.
“You can either turn the season around,” she said then, “or it’s going to get worse.”
So it was only fitting that on the final night of the season, this team would have to overcome just a little bit more. It was never going to be easy.
The Irish were held to three points in the second quarter—the fewest in any regulation period in Final Four history. Jackie Young had gotten two early fouls, forcing Ogunbowale to bring the ball up the court at times and taking her out of her comfort zone. She was cold from the field, shooting 1-for-10 in the first half, and clearly frustrated. The Bulldogs’ potent combination of McCowan and Vivians—both first team All-Americas—combined for 23 of the team’s 30 first half points. (The center also added an exclamation point block in the second quarter, swatting a Notre Dame layup attempt seemingly to Cleveland.) Notre Dame went into halftime down by 13 points.
“A lot of us were shook,” forward Kathryn Westbeld says. “Our minds were kind of going everywhere.”
A week after that Louisville loss, the Irish were trailing by 23 points at home against Tennessee. The ensuing comeback was the largest in program history, a turning point, a glimmer of what could be possible. The players thought about that game during halftime on Sunday night. And they thought about their last two tournament games, when they had trailed by nine points to Oregon and 13 to UConn before mounting comebacks. They did not panic; they knew they were going to come out strong.
“The third quarter is ours,” guard Marina Mabrey says. “And will always be ours.”
The coaches made slight adjustments on defense. Recognizing that McCowan was being allowed to receive entry passes too deep into the paint, they decided to send a double every time she touched the ball—since the center had a negative assist to turnover ratio, they dared her to try to kick it out to teammates. On the other end of the floor, they realized that they had a mismatch with McCowan guarding Shepard, as the transfer from Nebraska could stretch the floor with her shot and attack off the dribble.
When the two-time All-Big Ten selection announced her decision in June to leave the Cornhuskers for the Irish, it was assumed that she would have to sit out one season, per transfer rules. McGraw hadn’t thought too much about installing Shepard in the offensive game plan heading into the season, figuring she’d be wasting her time. Then at 2:30 on Nov. 1, the day of the season opener, the coaches got word that the NCAA had approved Shepard’s hardship waiver; she would be eligible to play immediately.
“That’s the season, right there,” Ivey says. “That changed everything.”
In the second half, Notre Dame pushed the tempo offensively, realizing that their half-court offense was stagnant and ineffective. They seemed to throw away their entire offensive scheme as Ogunbowale began to simply will her way to the basket, careening all the way down the court and into the lane. She would score 16 of her 18 points in the second half, while Shepard would stabilize the offense, finishing with 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting.
The Irish ended the third quarter on a 16–1 run. The score was tied as the final period began.
The fourth quarter was a slugfest, each team trading baskets and blows. After a Mississippi State three gave the Bulldogs a five-point lead with just under two minutes to go, Mabrey responded immediately with a triple of her own—Notre Dame’s first made three of the game. With 40 seconds left on the clock and the game tied at 58, Mississippi State drew up a play to feed its star center down low, and it nearly worked. McCowan received the entry pass in the post, took one drop step into the lane and had a good look at the basket. But somehow the shot did not fall.
The next possession ended in chaos: a steal by McCowan on one end, followed quickly by a steal by Young at midcourt that had Bulldog fans clamoring for a foul call. Instead, the Irish got one last play. It would be an inbounds pass from the sidelines with three seconds left.
After Ogunbowale hit the shot, after she shed the teammates jumping and screaming and flinging themselves on top of her, she ran across the court to the Notre Dame fan section. Then she looked up into the stands, tapped at her right forearm with her left index finger, and yelled, “Ice.”
“She’s got ice in her veins,” Ivey says. “She was born for these moments.”
Soon the fireworks went off and the confetti fell and the nets were cut. Ogunbowale and Shepard both held the national title trophy, their lips pressed up against one side of the hardware as cameras clicked. The team headed back to the locker room, where a blue recycling bin full of water was dumped on McGraw’s head and a black bag filled with Ring Pops passed around. A national championship was celebrated.
“They are in the history books now,” Ivey says. “They are legendary.”
Players hugged Ogunbowale’s parents. Fans thanked them. They are responsible, it was said, because they are the ones who made Arike.
That name, so unique, so different—and now so ubiquitous. It was the name bestowed upon Yolanda by her mother-in-law the first time they ever met in her husband’s native Nigeria. Yolanda told herself then that if she ever had a daughter, that’s what she’d name her. Arike. Something that you see and you cherish.
The world saw Arike Ogunbowale on Friday night. On Sunday night, she made sure that it would forever cherish her, too.