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ND Women’s Basketball

Notre Dame tops UConn in overtime to advance to national championship game

| Saturday, March 31, 2018

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It couldn’t be confined to 40 minutes.

In fact, it couldn’t be confined to one day. This had to finish in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Irish fans may not have liked it, but the stolen inbounds pass to tie the game felt right. There needed to be more. An ending in regulation wasn’t the ending this game deserved.

After all, it always takes overtime to beat them anyway.

And when it got to overtime, the Irish couldn’t take a solid lead and coast. Save that for the other semifinal. Give the Irish a chance to put the game away from the line, but they have to miss them both. This one’s going down to the final possession.

This is No. 1 seeds Notre Dame and UConn in the Final Four. This is a game that saw double-digit leads erased by both teams. It saw plays that could have been the highlight of the tournament forgotten behind the next one just minutes later. Most importantly, it saw the greatest dynasty this sport has seen defeated by a team with only seven healthy scholarship players.

Everyone in Nationwide Arena witnessed a classic.

And it had to end like one. Every second had to count. This one — a 91-89 win for the Irish — wouldn’t be decided until the 2,700th.

Zachary Yim | The Observer
Irish junior guard Arike Ogunbowale dribbles upcourt during Notre Dame’s 91-89 win over UConn in the Final Four at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

How? Has to be another iconic play, let’s say a deep pullup two that wasn’t part of the play design.

And who? The player that missed those two free throws.

Though —  44 1/2 minutes of play before that final shot — Connecticut senior forward Gabby Williams was the first to score, Notre Dame (34-3, 15-1 ACC) became the first team to hold a lead over the Huskies (36-1, 16-0 AAC) this tournament thanks to a layup from junior guard Marina Mabrey with 8:46 left in the first quarter — a lead that junior guard Arike Ogunbowale would extend with a 3 nearly 30 seconds later.

The Huskies cut the score to within a point, but again the Irish went on a run, this time an 8-0 advantage highlighted by a sequence in which Mabrey took the ball from Huskies senior guard Kia Nurse under the basket and passed to Ogunbowale, who faked a shot before giving the ball to wide-open sophomore guard Jackie Young. That score made the lead 13-6, the largest deficit for UConn since Geno Auriemma’s team played at Texas on Jan. 15.

Soon, the Irish had the largest lead any team had held over the Huskies this season, passing their own mark of 12 points set during Dec. 3’s 80-71 loss, as Young took the game over, scoring seven points without another player on the court scoring to give the Irish a 24-11 lead late in the quarter.

But with the first-quarter seconds ticking down and the Huskies having scored only 11 points from their first 19 shots, first-team All-American and junior guard Katie Lou Samuelson came up with a game-changing play. Her 3-pointer slammed off the backboard before going in, cutting the lead back to 10 points.

From that moment, the Huskies were unstoppable. Samuelson, Williams and junior forward Azura Stevens combined for 25 points while the Irish scored only six in the first nine minutes of the second quarter, helped by the defensive efforts of Stevens and Williams, who recorded two blocks each. McGraw said she struggled to deal with changes in the Huskies’ defense.

“They were changing defenses on us a little bit,” McGraw said. “I think that we didn’t handle it as well as we could have in the second quarter in particular. We had some openings, and we weren’t able to see them. We talked about it a little bit in the time-outs and at halftime. That bothered us a bit, the way they came out. And they’re just so long.”

But Ogunbowale, who started 2-for-8 shooting in the first half, said she was still confident.

“I think, sadly, we’ve been in this position a lot when we were down by a big margin,” Ogunbowale said. “I guess it really helped for this game because we were used to it. We’ve had to overcome large deficits before, so we didn’t get down on ourselves.”

The Irish eventually ended the onslaught with a layup from senior forward Kathryn Westbeld before Ogunbowale drove toward the basket, pulled up and saw her shot sit precariously on the rim before falling through the hoop. Yet, the Irish faced a new worry in the final minute of the half when junior forward Jessica Shepard turned her ankle going for a rebound and left the game.

Zachary Yim | The Observer
Irish senior forward Kathryn Westbeld attempts to lay the ball into the basket during Notre Dame’s 91-89 overtime win over UConn in the Final Four on Friday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

With Shepard back in the lineup to start the second half, Notre Dame crept back. Four minutes into the half, Ogunbowale made it a one-score game with two free throws.

Then Mabrey, in an otherwise quiet scoring night, produced a highlight play, throwing up a desperation 3 under heavy pressure from a Connecticut defender only to find her shot go in, her only 3-pointer of the game to give Notre Dame the lead again with 2:21 left in the third.

“I thought it was a foul, but it’s okay,” Mabrey said. “I felt like my team really needed to do something there. I needed to get some shots up.”

The Huskies struck back almost immediately, but Ogunbowale gave the Irish another lead with a corner 3 and nearly extended it after stealing the ball from Huskies sophomore guard Crystal Dangerfield but couldn’t finish. Instead, Stevens scored four in the final minute of the period. Then, in the fourth quarter, Huskies seemed to have all but put the game away when Dangerfield, 0-for-7 shooting up until the seven-minute mark of the fourth quarter, drained a 3 to put the Huskies up eight.

But the Irish fought their way back into the game again. Again, Young was the player who took over the game, knocking down two free throws to make the game 69-64 before she tossed the ball up from midrange while being fouled and saw it go in for an and-1. A three-point play by Huskies junior forward Napheesa Collier at the other end restored the UConn lead to five points, but Young scored again before the Irish took advantage of a turnover and took the lead through Ogunbowale.

The teams traded leads before Ogunbowale had what would, under ordinary circumstances, be her highlight of the game. After a missed shot from Young went out of bounds off a Huskies player, Mabrey inbounded with one second on the shot clock.

Ogunbowale found some space in the midrange, received the ball, released instantly and knocked it down. The Irish had a three-point lead with 46 seconds left.

When Williams threw a pass out of bounds with 21 seconds left, the Huskies were in fouling territory. And Ogunbowale made her free throws, giving the Irish a five-point lead. The game looked over.

But there needed to be more.

Dangerfield drove to the basket for an easy chance at two, but passed up the open layup to give the ball to Collier, who made a 3 to cut the lead to two.

But the Irish still had the ball.

They just couldn’t get it in bounds.

Shepard’s inbounds pass was stolen by Nurse, who stormed to the basket to tie the game at 79 with just nine seconds left. Inbounding again with a late chance to score, the Irish pushed the ball down the court, but Shepard couldn’t hold onto Mabrey’s pass and the Huskies got one last chance to win in regulation. Williams couldn’t convert from the elbow, however.

Five more minutes.

A Shepard free throw gave the Irish the first lead of the period, and they controlled the momentum and the lead for much of the time. When Young made a free throw with one still to come and 44 seconds left in the overtime period, the Irish looked comfortable again with a five-point lead. But the sophomore missed the second, and Collier scored on the ensuing UConn possession to make it a one-score game. With 39 seconds left, the Huskies may not have needed to foul Ogunbowale, but the decision paid dividends, as the 80 percent free-throw shooter, who had made 6-of-6 on the night up to that point, missed them both. Dangerfield, 1-for-7 from beyond the arc and 2-for-10 overall from the field up to that point, went for the deep 3 herself this time and knocked it down to tie the game.

The Irish had one last chance, calling timeout with 14 seconds left.

After deciding on the inbounder — it would be Young — Shepard almost had an open path to the basket, but Williams recovered and Shepard passed the ball back out.

Ogunbowale then took it, crossed over Collier and shot from just inside the 3-point line.

McGraw said that wasn’t how the play was drawn up.

“The plan was to get Arike to go one-on-one and drive to the basket,” she said. “We didn’t think they’d foul. Tie game, they wouldn’t want to put her on the free-throw line.”

But that’s how it went.

“It felt good,” Ogunbowale said. “I didn’t know it was going in, but it felt good.”

It did go in. The game wasn’t quite over yet, but the Huskies couldn’t get a shot off in the final second. In the 2,700th second, the score was set. Notre Dame 91, UConn 89.

With the win, the Irish advanced to Sunday’s national championship game, where they will take on Mississippi State. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

Contact Daniel