ND Women’s Basketball
Notre Dame clinches title with last-second win
Elizabeth Greason | Monday, April 2, 2018
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Kathryn Westbeld sat down and leaned against the back of her locker in the locker room of Nationwide Arena. A soft smile plastered to the senior forward’s face; she gently shook her head at no one in particular before gazing down at her hand, clad with Notre Dame’s signature playoff-green nail polish and a new addition — a purple ring pop — clearly replaying the events of the last hour.
It all came down the final seconds once again.
It all came down to junior guard Arike Ogunbowale again.
The same shot. From almost the same spot. With three seconds on the clock and the game tied at 58, the Irish (35-3, 15-1 ACC) had one remaining chance.
Three seconds for sophomore guard Jackie Young to inbound the ball and score.
“Initially, we were looking for [junior forward Jessica Shepard], but — I mean, whenever I was looking at it, I didn’t like the way it looked,” Young said. “I knew, if I threw it, it would have possibly been a turnover. So, I talked to Arike before, and I was like, ‘If the matchup doesn’t look right or if Jess isn’t in the position that we’re looking for, then come back to the ball.’ And I just made sure that Arike was literally coming to the ball before I passed it to her.”
Ogunbowale moved back to Young, who was inbounding from the sideline, and, as the clock ticked down for the second time in just over 48 hours, Ogunbowale beat the buzzer and took down a giant, this time from beyond the 3-point arc. It looked precarious in the air and Nationwide Arena held its breath. The Irish did not.
“We had confidence in her. As soon as she put the shot up, I knew it was going in,” Young said.
No. 1 seeds Notre Dame and Mississippi State got nearly all the way through their handshake lines before the referees informed the squads that the celebration had been premature and that one-tenth of a second would be added to the clock, giving the Bulldogs (37-2, 16-0 SEC) one final chance on their end of the court — once three Bulldog players could be retrieved from the locker room, where they had also headed prematurely.
But the shot they got off never had a chance, and confetti rained. Irish by three. 61-58.
Shepard perched on the bench underneath her nameplate in the locker room. A goofy grin glued to her face, her cheeks still red from playing 35 minutes and a national champion hat sat atop her head. She balanced a basketball on her right thigh, the national championship trophy on her left, with a recycling bin between her legs for no apparent reason, posing for a photo for anyone who would take one.
“I keep telling everyone ‘I’m a national champion.’ But it hasn’t really hit me yet,” Shepard said. “I was told to take care of [the trophy]. It’s my baby right now.”
Ogunbowale spread out in her corner of the locker room, grinning wildly. The piece of the net she had clipped off with orange-handled scissors minutes earlier was tucked into the back of her baseball cap, tag still on. As the star of the moment was bombarded with questions, someone pointed out that she had received yet another shoutout on Twitter from a celebrity.
“Oh, J.J. Watt did? I’m gonna have to check that out,” Ogunbowale said excitedly, as she pulled out her phone. “Man, my phone’s blowing up; it’s freezing up.”
Going into the game, the biggest storyline was how Notre Dame was going to handle Bulldogs junior 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan. Because on paper, there is no one who can do it.
McCowan scored 18 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, adding to her NCAA-tournament-record total, which she had broken halfway through the Bulldogs’ previous game. However, the combination of Shepard, Westbeld and graduate student forward Kristina Nelson was also able to force her hand at times, fighting her for jump balls and double-teaming her to the best of their ability on their way to limiting her to a 7-for-19 shooting performance.
However, the real key to slowing McCowan down at the end of the game came by getting her into foul trouble. She went to the bench with 1:52 remaining in the third quarter with her third foul, bringing the Irish faithful to their feet in one of their most raucous rounds of applause of the night thus far.
And McCowan fouled out with three seconds remaining — the play that led to Ogunbowale’s game-winning shot.
“I just want to say McCowan is an unbelievable player. She had a fantastic game,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. “She’s so difficult to guard. She is definitely an All-American.”
Lindsay Allen cozied up next to Nelson in the locker room, looking content. Many had said the Irish had missed their shot last year — that it was the former Irish point guard who would lead them to victory, and without her, they would need to rebuild.
Allen had traveled back from playing overseas to come to the game. The New York Liberty guard is spending her offseason playing in Russia. But she’s not the only one who was back. Michaela Mabrey. Ruth Riley. Kayla McBride. Natalie Novosel. All in all, upward of 20 program alumnae had returned for the game. As the team boarded the platform for the trophy presentation, the alums sprinted down onto the court, screaming and cheering from behind the roped off area. Notre Dame women’s basketball special events coordinator Sharla Lewis turned around, grinning, and began tossing the alumnae national championship T-shirts.
“It was great to see so many of our alums and how happy they were for us,” McGraw said. “They were just — they couldn’t be happier for this team, for what they’ve accomplished, for the whole program, for the coaching staff. We are a family, and it’s great to have them back.”
The ending was nearly not-so-storybook for the Irish. In fact, at halftime, it appeared as though the Bulldogs might be sending Notre Dame home with its tail between its legs.
But the Irish had been there before. A 13-point deficit at halftime, which grew to as large as 15 points in the third quarter, may have seemed like the end to many. But in the locker room, the Irish were just getting started.
“I just talked about our composure, how we needed to get back to what we were supposed to be doing in the first half,” McGraw said of her halftime talk. “Getting some backdoor opportunities. We had backdoor opportunities, we were open, [but] we couldn’t get the ball in — the pressure on the guards was too intense. So I thought we put [Young] at the point, and that made the difference for the second half.”
Notre Dame had floundered in the second quarter, getting outscored by the Bulldogs 13-3 and turning the ball over seven times — six of which came from junior guard Marina Mabrey, who struggled to move the ball against the Bulldogs’ quick guards and aggressive press.
Coming out of halftime, the Irish had not made a basket in 3:08 of game action. But everything changed quickly.
Mabrey stared straight ahead from her locker — slightly dazed, smiling, her lips slightly blue from sucking on her ring pop. She looked up at a camera.
“I’m waiting for the ’30 for 30,’” Mabrey joked. “After the Louisville game, I thought we weren’t even making it past the second round. What is wrong with us? I’m so proud of this team and how we changed our whole mentality.”
The Irish came out with renewed vigor in the third quarter and outscored Mississippi State 24-11. It began with a layup from Shepard, and then Mabrey stole the ball and took it all the way for another basket.
Little by little, the Irish closed the gap, until with 16 seconds left in the quarter, all the momentum in the game swung Notre Dame’s way. The quarter closed as it opened: with Shepard scoring, this time to tie the game at 41.
The Irish had successfully closed a 13-point deficit in 10 minutes.
But it wasn’t over. In typical Notre Dame fashion, it would come down to the final moments.
The Irish found themselves down five with 1:58 to play in the game. But they were unphased.
“For us, we’re just relentless. We’ve been down multiple times this year,” Shepard said. “We’ve got 20 minutes left at halftime, and we’re not gonna end it like we were playing in the first half.”
With the sound of the first confetti cannon, there was a familiar sight for the Irish. A Kelly green sweater and green leprechaun hat with a purple Columbus Final Four brochure tucked into the brim sprinted onto the court to embrace his wife at half court, though he beat her there.
Matt McGraw lifted Muffet McGraw’s white and red patterned stilettos off the court and spun her around as confetti and streamers rained.
“‘What though the odds,’ part of our fight song,” Muffet McGraw said. “The fighting spirit of Notre Dame is just amazing. Relentless, competitive, they have a swagger, they believe in themselves with the confidence that starts with Arike and Marina and just filters down through the team.”
The Irish can play that victory march loud for all to hear. Because while Good Friday may have been great, on Easter Sunday, they were crowned champions.