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ND Women’s Basketball

Second-half adjustments allow for Irish comeback, title

| Monday, April 2, 2018

COLUMBUS, Ohio — From junior forward Jessica Shepard’s layup to make the game 12-6 and her score to make it 24-16, 10 minutes and 36 seconds of basketball were played.

Junior guard Marina Mabrey made a layup.

Mabrey missed a layup.

Junior guard Arike Ogunbowale missed a jumper.

Mabrey missed a jumper.

Ogunbowale missed another two jumpers.

Mabrey had a layup attempt swatted away by the ferocious junior center Teaira McCowan.

And those were all the shots Notre Dame took during that stretch, more than a quarter of the game.

It wasn’t that the Irish (35-3, 15-1 ACC) weren’t seeing the ball. They had plenty of possessions, but the second the ball was inbounded, every Irish player had maroon and white in her face. During those 10 minutes, the Irish turned the ball over eight times.

Zachary Yim | The Observer
Irish junior guard Arike Ogunbowale goes up for a layup during Notre Dame’s 61-58 win over Mississippi State in the national title game on Sunday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

It was a strategy that seemed to play to Irish weaknesses, and one used by Louisville in the most recent Irish defeat. Only moving to point guard from shooting guard after graduate student Lili Thompson’s injury, Mabrey is not a prototypical point guard, and struggled with the pressure early on to the tune of seven first-half turnovers.

“I think I just tried to do too much,” Mabrey said. “I had to learn to just take it a little easier, let some of the other guys do their thing, they’re great players and I was just trying to do too much myself.”

And with a deeper bench than the now famously-depleted Irish, the Bulldogs could afford to expend some extra energy chasing the Irish ball-handlers around.

That’s the kind of combination of strategy and execution that earned Vic Schaefer a reputation as an elite defensive coach, a couple of national coach of the year trophies and a national championship in 2011 against none other than the Irish, who had upset Tennessee and Connecticut before losing 76-70 to a Texas A&M team with Shaefer on the staff in the championship game.

For a moment in the first half, the Irish seemed frustrated by Mississippi State (37-2, 16-0 SEC). Ogunbowale gave away a foul on a fast break with a reckless attempt to win the ball back. Then Mabrey’s attempt to find contact for a three-point play on the following possession led to a traveling call. Shepard attempted a rare 3 as the Irish tried to inject something new: It didn’t work.

But Muffet McGraw adapts. You don’t coach a team to a 23-point comeback against Tennessee, a 16-point Sweet Sixteen comeback against Texas A&M and an 11-point comeback against undefeated UConn, all in the same season — never mind the two double-digit Final Four comebacks to win that first national championship 17 years prior — without an ability to make adjustments. It’s easy to believe this is was a team of destiny, but every miracle takes plenty of real work, and McGraw’s adjustments were usually behind the Irish erasing double-digit leads.

Sophomore guard Jackie Young took the ball up the court for a few possessions, and the Irish offense still struggled at first. But McGraw kept it up with the adjustments, and a combination of Young and Ogunbowale as ball-handler finally led to some offensive progress.

“I think Jackie and Arike did a little more ball-handling and running the point, and I think that took Marina off to the wing a little bit more,” McGraw said. “I think that was the most success that we had against their pressure because it was really great pressure.”

And among other things, that adjustment set up Mabrey to make maybe the second-biggest shot of the game, the first Irish 3 of the game to answer one from redshirt-senior guard Roshunda Johnson and make the score 58-56 with 1:35 left.

“I was definitely looking to make it,” Mabrey said of the shot. “We weren’t even looking for a 3. We didn’t even get any. We were looking for Jess inside, and my player left. I think she trapped down or something. Jess just kicked it to me, and I was like, ‘Okay, Marina, it’s time. You really need to make this.’ So I got lucky.”

Zachary Yim | The Observer
Irish junior forward Jessica Shepard attempts to tip the ball in during Notre Dame’s 61-58 win over Mississippi State in the national title game Sunday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

Shaeffer said the changes in the Irish offense were even simpler than that, however: They just drove to the basket and got to the line.

“At the end of the day, they just put their head down, went to the rim, and tried to get fouled,” Schaefer said. “They went inside. [Shepard] was 8-for-10, and we had a hard time dealing with her. And, again, you give her credit. We just had a hard time handling her.”

McGraw gave credit where it was due, but said her team’s mindset ensured the comeback was always possible.

“Mississippi State was a tremendous defensive team,” McGraw said. “They really gave us a lot of problems in the first half. We lost our composure a little bit, but we got it back and we just kept fighting.”

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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