Arike Ogunbowale cemented her place in college basketball history in 2018, sinking two buzzer beaters to lead Notre Dame to the national title.
Amaze. Inspire. Surprise. You’ll be hearing those words a lot in the coming weeks—together, they cut to the heart of why we love sports in the first place. So in the days leading up to the naming of SI’s Sportsperson we’ll be looking back and shining a light on the athletes, moments and teams (and one horse) who did one—or all—of those things in 2018. There can be only one Sportsperson. But it has been a year full of deserving candidates.
The first NCAA basketball tournament took place in 1939, but it wasn’t until ’82 that the women’s competition came into existence. That’s 115 combined tournaments played, and yet not once had a player, man or woman, hit multiple buzzer beaters in a single event. So at 8 p.m. on April 1, 2018, why would anyone expect that Arike Ogunbowale was about to accomplish just that in a single weekend?
Sure the Notre Dame guard had announced to the world that she had frosted blood flowing through her body’s circulation system just two days prior when she hit a step back jumper to knock off undefeated Connecticut. But this was the national championship, an even bigger stage, and The Irish had trailed by as many as 15 points in the game, their fifth straight contest where they were down at half. Ogunbowale had been off early—one for 10 in the first half, visibly frustrated by Mississippi State’s defense.
After Ogunbowale’s first buzzer beater on Friday, I spoke with members of her family and her high school coaches. Her parents told stories from when Ogunbowale was a toddler, when their youngest child, wearing only diapers, wandered away from their sight and soon they found her standing in the driveway, basketball in her hands, staring up at the 10-foot hoop, wanting to shoot. They recalled a three-year old Arike draining shot after shot on the Fisher Price hoop in her room, never missing. Her coaches regaled with tales of needing to create drills in practice that simulated last-second situations in order to pique their star player’s interest, and then watching her drain every single shot.
Surely these stories were just that, stories, apocryphal anecdotes that had been aggrandized over time in the tellers’ memories.
But with three seconds left in the title game, the score tied at 58 and Notre Dame guard Jackie Young inbounding the ball from the sideline, we would learn that wasn’t the case. The play was designed to go to forward Jessica Shephard in the post, but she quickly saw a double team. And that’s when Ogunbowale ran towards Young, yelling for the ball, then turned towards the baseline, took one dribble, then another, and lifted, falling sideways and out of bounds. As the ball took its parabola path towards the basket, sitting interminably in the air, you could actually feel the mounting anticipation in the arena. Could it be? No. No way. Wait. Wait.
Then mayhem ensued and a tournament hero was born. March Madness, indeed.