ND Women’s Basketball
Irish fall short of going back-to-back, lose in national championship thriller
Elizabeth Greason | Monday, April 8, 2019
TAMPA, Fla. — “Do I miss? Do I miss it?”
Arike Ogunbowale was frantic after the first of the two free throws she had been awarded with 1.9 seconds remaining and a two-point deficit rolled off the rim. She doubled over and clutched her head, as her teammates looked on in shock at the 80% free-throw shooter — Ogunbowale is not supposed to miss with the game, the national title game, on the line.
Irish head coach Muffet McGraw looked back and nodded.
“Miss it! Miss it!”
And as graduate student forward Brianna Turner and senior forward Jessica Shepard angled themselves inward, preparing to launch themselves at the rim, the junior guard lined up her shot. And released a perfect free throw.
Ogunbowale did not move. Her jaw slackened as she reached the immediate realization that she would not be the one cutting the net this season.
McGraw grabbed the ends of her pixie cut, continuing to call out halfhearted instructions for the remaining 0.6 seconds on the clock.
But soon, confetti was falling and no one from Notre Dame (35-4, 14-2 ACC) was collecting it as a keepsake or doing faux snow angels on the middle of the court.
“It doesn’t come down to one free throw. Everybody did some things that they wish they could take back,” McGraw said. “Unfortunately, we don’t get to do them over.”
What McGraw did heavily attribute the loss to, however, was her squad’s difficulties in the first quarter.
The Irish went 5-of-24 from the field in the first quarter, shooting just 20.8%. They led once, after senior guard Marina Mabrey made a 3-pointer for Notre Dame’s first points of the game. But the Irish did not reclaim the lead until the fourth quarter. The gap between Notre Dame and Baylor (37-1, 18-0 Big 12) grew larger and larger throughout the first three quarters as the Irish failed to contain the Lady Bears’ two feared posts: junior Lauren Cox and senior Kalani Brown, and graduate-student guard Chloe Jackson.
Jackson, in particular, proved challenging for the Irish, as she went on to score a Baylor career-high, finishing the game with 26 points on 25 shots.
“They came out and were making shots. We weren’t necessarily taking the shots we wanted. We were kind of letting them get whatever shot they wanted on offense,” senior forward Jessica Shepard said. “We were letting them control the glass. We weren’t getting rebounds in the first half, in like the first three quarters. Our defense just wasn’t good enough.”
The Irish spent the first quarter floundering on both ends of the court. Mabrey’s 3-pointer was her only shot that went in, while junior guard Jackie Young and Turner each only made one shot themselves. Ogunbowale managed to squeeze out a second bucket — five points with an and-one — and Shepard went 0-for-3.
Where the Lady Bears really made their difference was on fast-break points, outscoring the Irish 12-0 on those chances in the first frame.
The second quarter was only marginally better for Notre Dame. It went in with a 25-14 hole and while the offense started to find its groove, the Irish continued to find themselves without an answer for the Baylor offense, with Brown posing the biggest issue this time around.
Mabrey was proving herself to be a vocal leader at the point, remaining poised in the face of a double-digit deficit and directing her teammates on the court and providing the loudest voice in the huddle. However, she found herself on the bench for much of the second quarter when she was handed her second foul of the game.
“She’s incredibly competitive, feisty. I mean, it hurt us when she got the two fouls in the first half because we lost our edge,” McGraw said of Notre Dame’s all-time 3s leader. “She was really, really the one that was getting things done for us on the floor. It was difficult playing without her.”
And without that “edge,” Brown went 5-for-5 in the quarter, as the 6-foot-7 center was simply able to outreach and out-rebound her Irish counterparts.
“Kalani down low, she’s the strongest person I’ve played against all year long,” Turner said of the matchup. “She’s just got so much length and she just takes up so much space.”
The second quarter was when a switch flipped inside Ogunbowale, though. It was as if she realized she was going to need to pull the offensive weight, and she lit up for nine points in the quarter, more than double her nearest Notre Dame counterpart — Turner scored four points in the quarter. However, the 6-foot-3 forward also found herself on the bench for two minutes with two fouls, as sophomore center Mikayla Vaughn went toe-to-toe with Brown.
As Brown and Jackson continued to sink shots, the Bears extended their lead to as many as 17 points with 6:38 remaining in the half, at a score of 33-16. The Bears were in the midst of an 8-0 run, but Mabrey sank her lone bucket of the quarter to stifle their momentum.
At the end of the half, the Irish were still in a hole, albeit a smaller one than it had been: 43-31.
But the Irish are a second-half team. They own the second half.
On Friday, McGraw said sometimes she worries that the magic won’t come in the second half. But it arrived, like clockwork. A clock that’s running a few minutes late.
The stat line from the second half is like that of a different team from the first, but that tide only started to turn in the third quarter.
Ogunbowale picked up where she left off in the second, racking up 10 more points — two 3-pointers — and Turner added six more. Shepard scored her first points of the game in the quarter.
But the defense still wasn’t there, as the starters were only able to bag five rebounds between the five of them.
Every time Notre Dame scored, Baylor had an answer.
When Mabrey made a pull-up jumper, to cut it to a 12-point deficit, Bears sophomore guard DiDi Richards drove to the basket for an easy layup to bring it back to 14. Shepard added her first points to make it 12 again, but Brown fought off the Irish bigs to add to her total for the day. Back to 14. Mabrey again, but Jackson had the retort for Baylor this time.
The Irish finally made two buckets in a row when Turner drove to the basket with 6:52 left in the third, the ball swapped possession back and forth quickly a few times after Cox missed a jumper and Ogunbowale ultimately ran it back for a 3-pointer.
The Irish cut the Bears’ lead to seven points on an alley-oop to Turner from Ogunbowale on which she grazed the rim. But the Bears came right back and extended the lead back to 14, going on a 7-0 run.
With 1:22 things changed for the Lady Bears. They lost a star. Cox went down underneath the Irish basket after Brown appeared to step on her ankle while going for a rebound. Cox collapsed on the court, clutching her left knee in tears and head coach Kim Mulkey sprinted across the court and enveloped her in a hug, attempting to console the junior and herself, who also appeared close to tears. Cox was taken off the court in a wheelchair and did not return to the game.
“I don’t think anybody wants to see that. We’ve had so many. Brings back bad memories. You kind of want to gather up, say a prayer in your head, hope she’s OK,” McGraw said. “But you’ve got to be resilient, just like we were last year. You’ve got to be able to come out. I thought [freshman forward NaLyssa] Smith came in and gave them a huge lift. I thought she played really well.”
Baylor kept its 14-point lead and was poised to enter the final quarter with it, but, in typical Ogunbowale fashion, she beat the buzzer for a pull-up 3-point jump shot to crawl within 11.
And then the momentum shifted.
“We thought we were going to [win], with the run we were making, stops we’re getting, stuff we were hitting,” Young said.
The fourth quarter was where the magic happened for Notre Dame. In under five minutes, the squad had tied the game at 74 as Mabrey did her best James Harden imitation and dropped a 3. The senior, who had been slumping for much of the tournament, found her groove in the fourth quarter, as the 3-pointer to tie the game was already her third of the quarter.
But Mabrey was not the only player who found her game in the fourth quarter.
Shepard embraced the newfound space without Cox on the floor and put up seven points, while Ogunbowale continued her charge from the previous two quarters.
“I thought we were going to win. All we had to do was get one stop, even though that one stop has been hard for us to get this year,” McGraw said. “We needed a little more on the defensive end.”
Once the Irish hit the tie, it was back to the same for the two teams — trading baskets.
Baylor regained the lead, but Ogunbowale hit a pull-up jumper to tie the game again.
And then, with 3:17 left in the game, the Irish took the lead for the first time since the first quarter as Ogunbowale went to the line, missing her first free throw, but making her second to put the Irish up by one.
Brown hit a layup to regain the lead for Baylor, but Shepard found herself at the foul line shooting two free throws with 47 seconds to play and a chance to take the lead. The 6-foot-4 transfer from Nebraska missed the first free throw, but made her second, tying the game again. It was Jackson again for the Bears, who sunk a jumper and gave her squad the lead with half-a-minute to play.
But Shepard found herself at the line again, as Brown fouled her as she attempted a layup. This time, there was no question: both were going in and we had a tie ballgame.
While Ogunbowale may have carved herself into the world’s memory last season with the shot heard ’round the world, Chloe Jackson at least etched her name into Baylor history books on Sunday, as she drove to the basket for her second-straight bucket, giving the Bears the two-point lead with six seconds to play.
The Irish were ready. They had the play planned out. They were sending the ball to Ogunbowale. No matter what. And as Young inbounded the ball to the senior, just as she had last season, she drove to the basket. And Smith committed a foul, sending her to the line to shoot two.
“We decided that [it would be Ogunbowale] probably a week ago,” McGraw said. “I mean, there’s no question that’s what was going to happen. Worked on that play in particular. Wasn’t exactly how we thought it would go. She got to the free-throw line.”
But at the free-throw line, with the chance to tie and send the game to overtime, things did not go according to plan.
Ogunbowale lined up for her first shot. And as reliable as she had been all season, with the title on the line, the ball bounced off the rim.
After her frantic exchange with her coach, in which the two realized they needed to miss the second shot and hope Turner or Shepard could grab the rebound, she lined up again. And instead of the sound of the rim, the net made a gut-wrenching swoosh.
“Arike knows it wasn’t her fault. A minute earlier I missed a free throw,” Shepard said. “It wasn’t her free throw that lost us the game. It wasn’t my free throw. It was a lot of different possessions where we didn’t get the stop or the possession that we needed. A 40-minute basketball game doesn’t come down to one possession.”
Ultimately, Turner said it came down to the Irish relying too heavily on their famous fourth-quarter magic.
“Coach always emphasized all year the little things. She always says that coming back in the fourth quarter isn’t going to work against all the teams. Obviously that came to bite us today,” she said. “Obviously there were things throughout the course of the game that obviously could have changed the outcome.
With their one-point, 82-81 loss to the Bears, Notre Dame’s starters have still broken records left and right. They finished their careers with a cumulative 10,230 points — more than any group of five players in Division I basketball. Men or women. Ogunbowale’s 31 points in the title game was more than any player since Sheryl Swoopes in 1993. Turner is Notre Dame’s all-time leader in blocks, Mabrey the all-time 3s leader and Ogunbowale the all-time leading scorer.
Their runner-up status will sit with their national championship trophy.
But for Sunday, it just wasn’t good enough, McGraw said.
“We made a huge comeback, we showed great fight, but too little, too late,” she said.