April 1, 2018
By John Heisler
Just when it looked like quite possibly the luck of the Irish had run out.
Just when it looked like Mississippi State's game-long defensive harassment was going to win out.
Just when it seemed, at halftime, like maybe the Irish would be fortunate to score 30 points by game's end, much less 61.
Just when the stat sheet said Arike Ogunbowale missed nine of her 10 first-half shots and the Irish heading into the waning moments had not hit a three-pointer all night.
Just when it seemed as if, after three straight NCAA late-game comebacks had transformed into victories, a fourth was simply going to be too much to expect.
Just when the Irish looked like they would lose -- leaving all the pundits to talk about how all the injuries finally caught up to Muffet McGraw and her crew -- they made all the right moves.
In what amounted to sudden death with the game tied, Ogunbowale did her thing for the second time in three nights in Columbus, Ohio, at the NCAA Women's Basketball Championships.
Friday night against Connecticut, her dagger jump shot while straddling the three-point line hit the twine with one full second left.
This time, in the title game Sunday night, she cut it a bit closer -- this time allowing the Bulldogs one-10th of a second.
It made no difference.
The Irish made up a 15-point deficit midway through the third period and, just like Friday versus UConn, essentially made one more play than Mississippi State.
With the ball in the hands of the Irish with three seconds left (and with the Bulldogs having a foul to give), Jackie Young flipped the basketball to Ogunbowale as she raced toward the far corner near the Irish bench. The junior from Milwaukee nailed a three-pointer that hit nothing but net as she flew toward the baseline.
McGraw termed Ogunbowale's finale a "kind of a desperation shot," yet no one in the Irish locker room cared what anyone chose to call it. It won the game. It won the national title.
Apparently depth is overrated. With only seven scholarship players down the stretch after a slew of injuries, the Irish proved it's perfectly okay to have six players contribute at least 24 minutes of play in a national title game against a 37-1 opponent--and then celebrate.
It all happened 17 years to the day after Notre Dame won its other women's basketball title in St. Louis in 2001 -- and 2001 MVP Ruth Riley was on hand with maybe 20 other former Irish players to join the celebration. They crashed the party, right behind the official trophy presentation platform -- and even McGraw came down to join them for a while because they appeared to be having more fun than anyone in Nationwide Arena.
ESPN, which owns the television rights to this event, saw its three-game weekend produce two overtimes and two games won by shots in the last second. Logic suggests there's now some chance ESPN will consider extending the contract another year.
The Irish defeated Mississippi State 61-58 to win the NCAA women's basketball crown for 2018 with two of the most improbable wins and two of the most amazing, if not unlikely, game-winning shots (with all due respect to Ogunbowale) in the history of women's college basketball.
The unofficial theme song of the women's Final Four (via ESPN) was "What About Us?" by Pink.
And it proved prophetic. Why not the Irish?
A solid Irish start in the title game enabled Notre Dame to parlay five Mississippi State turnovers and two-of-eight Bulldog shooting in the first five-and-a-half minutes into a 10-4 lead.
But Mississippi State responded with an 11-0 run in less than two minutes to lead by three (17-14) after one quarter.
Then the Bulldogs seriously took control, forcing Notre Dame into seven second-period turnovers and a single field goal (on one-for-nine shooting).
Mississippi State scored the final six points of the half to build a 13-point intermission lead (30-17) after the Irish went scoreless for a 10:33 span.
Vic Schaefer, the Bulldog head coach, watched as his crew regularly bothered Irish passers and shooters -- keeping Notre Dame far from any sort of comfort zone.
Ogunbowale had only two points at the break, and Mississippi State finished the half on a 26-7 run.
"It was all about composure," McGraw said of her halftime remarks. "We talked about how we were going to break the pressure and then we didn't do any of that (in the first half.) We tried to go one on one.
"In the second half we set some more screens, got some more movement and got the ball to Jess (Shepard) a little more."
Schaefer's version of the second half?
"They just put their head down, went to the rim and tried to get fouled."
After falling behind by 15, Notre Dame went on its own 16-1 run (including 10 straight) as the Bulldogs missed seven shots in a row. Shepard finally tied it at 41 on a put-back with :17 left in the third period.
The Irish made a big dent in the deficit by converting 10 of 12 third-period free throws.
Shepard gave Notre Dame its first lead in a long while with a lay-up 13 seconds into the final period.
The Bulldogs went back on top by scoring six in a row, and when Mississippi State's Roshunda Johnson hit a three for a 58-53 lead, the Irish looked like they might be finished.
Said Schaefer later, "You're up five with 1:40. It's my job to get them home and I didn't get them home."
Then Mabrey made Notre Dame's first three-pointer of the night at 1:35 (after starting none for seven) to make it a two-point game. Teaira McCowan (she finished with 18 points and 17 rebounds) missed a shot and committed a foul--and Young tied the game at 58 at the :45 mark.
Both teams turned it over after that -- but Young finally took the ball away from Morgan William and the clock stopped with three ticks on it after McCowan committed her fifth foul.
Actually, none of what took place over the first 39:57 mattered.
"We wanted to go to Jess (she led the Irish with 19 points) first, but I knew she (Arike) would get a shot off," said McGraw.
Just like Friday, the game came down to one play. Ogunbowale made it both times and she and her teammates now are champions.
After the Notre Dame players doused their head coach with water when she came into the locker room, Irish athletics director Jack Swarbrick surveyed the smile-swathed scene and referred to McGraw as the GOAT (greatest of all time).
"God forbid we'd be ahead at halftime," he kidded the Irish team with a smile of his own.
Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C., added, "This is one of the great wins in Notre Dame history. Not only because you won the national championship but because of the way you did it, with all you overcame. It was incredible."
Said McGraw to her squad, "If any team ever earned it, it was us. We fought and fought our way through. But we never lost hope -- never."
With that, the Irish players and staff launched into their own arm-in-arm dance moves set to "Swag Surfin,'" a 2009 song by F.L.Y. (Fast Life Yungstaz).
As Ogunbowale (she finished with 18 points) pointed out to Kobe Bryant, her new Twitter buddy, "It's over. The job is over."
The Irish did it by coming back to win from the largest deficit in NCAA title game history.
Why not us, after all.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame sports scene since 1978.