COLUMBUS, Oh.—Arike Ogunbowale wanted the ball.
UConn had just inexplicably tied the game, again, and now there were eight seconds left in overtime, eight seconds standing between Notre Dame and a berth in the national title game. One shot, one make, and it would pull off the upset that no one believed it could and topple undefeated UConn. And so Arike Ogunbowale wanted the ball.
The problem, though, was that teammate Marina Mabrey had the ball, right around the Final Four logo near half court. The play had broken down. The team had switched who was supposed to take the ball out several times, finally settling on Jackie Young. The ball had been inbounded to Jessica Shepard, who looked like she might have a chance for a quick layup. But the defense collapsed and she kicked it out to Mabrey. They had no play to run.
So as Mabrey attempted to dribble to her left, with the clock ticking past 10 seconds and the Irish offense stuck and stagnant, Ogunbowale ran straight up to her teammate and took the ball directly from her grasp. Because, again, Arike Ogunbowale wanted the ball.
Then she cleared out her teammates, sending them to the left side of the court, and stared down UConn forward Gabby Williams, one of the best defensive players in women’s college basketball. A screen came, forcing Williams to switch off, and now Ogunbowale was being guarded by Napheesa Collier, a taller and longer defender. Not that it mattered.
Ogunbowale hesitated, taking a stutter step dribble to the right of the screen. Five seconds were left on the clock. She took a couple of dribbles toward the baseline, backing up Collier onto her heels. Four seconds. Then she took one crossover dribble to the left, stepped back, set herself, one foot on the three-point line, the other just in front. Three seconds. She leapt, launching her shot right over Collier’s outstretched arms. One second remained on the clock and now Ogunbowale was screaming in jubilation. The shot felt good, because it was good.
A desperation full court heave off the inbounds pass for UConn ended, miraculously, with a good look for Katie Lou Samuelson, but the ensuing runner ended up clanging off the side of the rim and soon the Fighting Irish players were all in a semi-circle off to the side of the court dancing an Irish jig, crying and hugging. There was no time left remaining on the clock. The impossible had happened.
“If you would have told me last year at this time that I would be here, I would have shaken my head and thought you were crazy.” Shepard said. “At the end you can always count on Arike.”
It was the perfect ending for Notre Dame’s not-very-perfect season. Unlike the Huskies, it didn’t come into the game undefeated, having lost three games all season—including to UConn back in December and as recently as four weeks ago in the ACC tournament. But the Irish came from the opening tip clearly not afraid of the Huskies. They didn’t care about their vaunted history or their immaculate record or the neat and tidy redemption story that was awaiting them in the championship game—a rematch with Mississippi State, the team that ended their 111-game winning streak in last year’s Final Four. The Irish came out firing, Young came out hot, and the first quarter ended with Notre Dame holding a 24–14 lead.
“They just left me open,” Young said incredulously after the game. “I hit my first shot, and after that, we came back down, and they just kept leaving me open. I was able to get going."
That is an understatement, as Young took over the game at times, finishing with a career high 32 points in addition to 11 rebounds. But the Huskies came back, because of course they did. In the second quarter they outscored the Irish 27–10. The game was a back and forth affair after that, with the teams trading leads throughout the second half. But Notre Dame was not going to fold and acquiesce to their will. That isn’t its style. This is a team that lost four players to ACL tears this season and yet still managed to get a No. 1 seed, still managed to get to this Final Four. It wasn't about to give in now.
With seven minutes left, UConn expanded its lead to eight after guard Crystal Dangerfield hit a deep three. It seemed like the Huskies had taken control of the game. The Irish had put up a good fight, but now it was time for UConn to claim its rightful place back, reigning over the rest of the NCAA like it has done for decades.
But on the ensuing possession, Ogunbowale pulled up for a quick three of her own. That momentum was halted. Then it was Young, who poured in nine points in a four-minute stretch. Notre Dame had retaken control of the game. And with 21 seconds left, Notre Dame held a five-point lead. The game was over.
Or it seemed to be over. The crowd was on its feet, and Irish players were starting to urge them on to cheer in the last waning seconds. But then the unthinkable happened. Collier hit a three. Kia Nurse stole an inbounds pass and finished on the other end with a layup. The game was now tied, a five-point swing in five seconds. Ten seconds remained. After a turnover by Notre Dame, UConn had a chance to end the game in regulation but Williams missed a tough shot, sending the game to overtime. Logic would tell you that after such an emotional gut punch, the Irish would collapse in overtime. But that is not what happened, of course.
“The resilience,” Notre Dame coach Muffett McGraw said, “just really shines through."
In the extra period it was, again, the Young and Ogunbowale Show. The duo combined to score nine of the Irish’s final 11 points. Again, Notre Dame found itself up five, this time with 44 seconds left. And, yes, it happened, again. Collier got an easy bucket to pull the score within three. Then Ogunbowale got fouled. She had hit all six of her free throws up to that point. But she clangs the first. Then she clangs the second. Of course UConn was, again, going to hit a miracle three to tie the game, which is what happened when Dangerfield did exactly that with 29 seconds left.
Ogunbowale, though, was not shook. She was not worried. She wasn’t thinking about the missed free throws. She wanted the ball. And so she took the ball, and the team’s fate, in her hands. And she nailed it. Earlier in the week she had said that she didn’t remember the team’s first game with UConn in December. About thirty minutes after Ogunbowale ended the Huskies perfect season she was sitting on the post game dais and was asked if she’ll remember this game a little bit one more.
“I think a little bit,” she said. “Just a little bit.”
It could only have been that game and that ending that could have possibly overshadowed the first game of the evening, as Mississippi State and Louisville had their own exhilarating finish, their own buzzer beater, their own overtime. It was the first time in Final Four history that both games did not end in regulation.
There were 11.3 seconds left when Roshunda Johnson’s name was etched onto the list of March heroes. There were 11.3 seconds left and Blair Schaefer had the ball on the sideline right directly beside the Mississippi State bench. The Bulldogs were down by three points with a trip back to the national championship, and a chance at redemption, on the line. Three players lined up across the free throw line extended, with Teaira McCowan on one corner and Johnson on the other. As the ref handed the ball to Schaefer to start the play, Morgan William cut from the baseline to the top of the key and received the inbounds pass. As Schaefer sprinted through the lane, McCowan recognized that the defense had shifted toward Schaefer. So she turned to her left and set a pick for Johnson.
The senior guard ran over the screen, and turned, awkwardly, to her left to receive the pass from William. She had missed the only three-point attempt she had taken in the game, coming in the third quarter, and had also missed the last shot she took, a layup at the rim, just minutes earlier. But that didn’t matter. Not with 11.3 seconds left. Not for Roshunda Johnson.
She set her feet, her toes narrowly an inch behind the three-point life. Louisville guard Arica Carter chased, but was slowed by McCowan’s screen by a millisecond. She threw her left hand up as Johnson fired, a futile effort. Johnson held her follow through and backpedaled as the ball traveled its parabola path to the rim. Swish. Bedlam.
“Shooters never give up on a shot,” Johnson said. “I wasn't going to stop shooting just because I wasn't making any."
The shot didn’t win the game for Mississippi State. Not technically anyway. Technically the shot tied the game at 59 and sent the two teams to overtime. There, the Bulldogs made sure that the shot wasn’t in vein, pulling away in the extra time to win 73–63.
Yet, while Johnson’s shot will be most remembered, it was McCowan and guard Victoria Vivians who carried Mississippi State to that moment. McCowan physically dominated the Cardinals from the opening tip to the final buzzer, unceasing in her attack, never once coming out of the game. On the post game dais, when head coach Vic Schaefer lauded his 6’7” junior center for her performance and for playing all 40 minutes, McCowan cut him off. It was actually 45 minutes, she reminded him.
“She's dragging everybody up and down the floor,” Schaefer said. “Competing every possession. She wants to get them all. I'm telling you, she wants every rebound.”
And she nearly got them all. McCowan broke the will of whichever Louisville player was tasked with attempting to box her out, as she pulled down 25 rebounds in the game (a Final Four record), including 13 offensive boards—amazingly coming away with a rebound on 32.5% of her teammates misses on the game, according to Her Hoop Stats. McCowan’s ninth rebound of the night—which she got in the second quarter— set a new record for most in a single NCAA tournament with 76. She finished the game with 92 total boards so far in the tournament, shattering the previous record, and she still has one game to add more to that total.
Louisville tried several different defenders on McCowan—shuffling them futilely in and out so much that McCowan didn’t even know who was guarding her most of the time. Not that it mattered.
“I guess I was wearing them out pretty good,” she said.
The game did not start out auspiciously for the Bulldogs, however. The first quarter they were sluggish and sloppy, not scoring their first points of the game until the 5:29 mark when McCowan knocked down two free throws. Louisville came out of the gates with markedly more energy, and won every 50-50 ball early, as it seemed to take some time for Mississippi State to settle in to its game.
The Bulldogs struggled getting the ball into the post to McCowan, which was their most obvious advantage in the game as she had several inches on every Louisville defender. But Mississippi State’s defense kept it in the game early. Johnson chased All-American guard Asia Durr all around the court, making life difficult for her to even get the ball in her hands, hedging any screen she went around and sending a double if she got in the lane. Durr, the Cardinals irrepressible 5’10” guard, finished with 18 points on the game on 6-of-17 shooting from the field— but she had to fight for every single shot she took, first to shed a defender to even get the ball, and then with step backs and crossovers to get an inch of separation, every jumper contested.
McCowan struggled offensively when she was fed the ball in the post, scoring all but two of her 21 points off free throws and put backs. It was Vivians, though, who provided much of the offensive spark for the Bulldogs throughout the contest, hitting clutch threes and repeatedly getting into the lane for easy baskets. After sitting out much of the first quarter because of foul trouble, the senior guard finished with 25 points on 11-of-21 shooting. It seemed whenever the Bulldogs needed a bucket, it was Vivians who answered the call.
After Johnson’s shot sent the game to overtime, both Vivians and McCowan dominated the extra period. The guard started it off with a three followed by a long jumper and McCowan finished it off with three straight blocks in the game's waning seconds, and a mean mug down the court for good measure.
Of course, the thrilling win was reminiscent of Mississippi State’s game-winning buzzer beater in the Final Four last year as they toppled mighty UConn, ending the Huskies' 111-game winning streak. But after that thrilling finish, the Bulldogs fell short, losing to South Carolina in the championship game. Now they see an opportunity to finish what they came so close to achieving last season.
“This is our second time doing it, and we're still making history for our school,” Vivians says. “I just feel like this year, we're going to have to execute and finish it all out and be on top this time.”