COLUMBUS, Ohio — She did it again.
This time, with no seconds remaining, Arike Ogunbowale got the ball near the right wing off the inbound and hit a three-pointer to beat Mississippi State 61-58 to win Notre Dame’s second national championship on Easter Sunday. The Fighting Irish had not won a title since 2001 — which also happened on April 1.
It was Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw’s 800th win at Notre Dame.
“I’m speechless,” an ice water bath soaked McGraw said in the locker room. “The way we finished, two games in a row to win at the buzzer, it couldn’t be more exciting. There hasn’t been this much excitement at the Final Four since probably 2001.”
And you probably thought the national championship wouldn’t live up to the Final Four. Simply impossible that a game could be as wild as those two semifinals from Friday — both Notre Dame and Mississippi State won dramatic overtime games to get here.
But Sunday’s championship was just as crazy. The Irish fought their way back from a 15-point deficit to win it in the final seconds.
Unlike the victory over Connecticut where the final play was designed for Ogunbowale, this buzzer beater actually was not. With three seconds left, Jackie Young was supposed to find Jessica Shepard in the post, but she wasn’t open. So she called an audible.
“I didn’t like the way it looked,” Young explained. “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 to the ball. And I just made sure Arike was literally coming to the ball before I passed it to her.
“We had confidence in her. As soon as she put the shot up, I knew it was going in.”
Ogunbowale wasn’t having the best day offensively. At halftime, she had two points on 1-of-10 shooting. She was missing easy buckets, especially in transition, which is out of character. At one point, after missing a layup in the second half, she punched the padding at the base of the hoop. She never stopped shooting though and finished with 18 points.
“Arike’s got ice in her veins,” said longtime assistant coach Niele Ivey. “She’s just clutch.”
Ogunbowale also now has a new Twitter follower. Kobe Bryant, who was at the Final Four with his family cheering on Connecticut, tweeted a congratulatory message to her on Friday, started following her Saturday, and tweeted at her twice on Sunday.
Bryant has always been Ogunbowale’s favorite player, but when asked what’s better, having him follow her or winning a national title, she laughed and chose the latter.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Ogunbowale said while putting on jewelry at her locker. “To win a national title like that for my team, it’s crazy.”
Mississippi State had a comfortable 30-17 lead at halftime after outscoring the Irish 13-3 in the second quarter. It was a season low for points in a first half for Notre Dame. The Bulldogs’ pressure made the Irish uncomfortable, preventing them from scoring and putting them totally out of rhythm. Notre Dame wasn’t worried. They had been down by more before — like the 23-point deficit against Tennessee during the regular season and a similar 13-point deficit against Texas A&M in the Sweet 16.
“Literally we can’t play second quarters, no one knows why,” said Marina Mabrey, who had 10 points, including a clutch 3-pointer to put the Irish within two with 1:35 remaining. “It’s all right. Mississippi State knew we were coming back. We saw the fear in their eyes.”
Notre Dame regained its composure offensively and went on a 16-1 run over the final six minutes of the third quarter to tie the game 41-41 heading into the fourth. And in the fourth, Roshunda Johnson, whose three-pointer in the semifinal sent Mississippi State to overtime, hit a three with 1:54 remaining to give Mississippi State a 58-53 lead. That’s when Mabrey answered with Notre Dame’s first trey of the night.
“I had been doing so many things wrong so I was like, ‘Marina, do something. Make this three,’” she said. “So when I made it, I was like oh we’re about to be national champions. We’re not going anywhere. Hats off to Mississippi State, they’re a great team, but were better.”
Young quickly made a jumper to tie it 58-58 with 40.1 seconds left.
Then came Ogunbowale’s heroics. Young found her on the inbound and she finished with the dagger for the win.
Notre Dame had overcome so much before making the title game. It played all season without All-American Brianna Turner, lost starting point guard Lili Thompson in December, and played most the year without rotation players Mychal Johnson and Mikayla Vaughn because all four of them tore their ACLs.
McGraw, who was the only female head coach in this year’s Final Four, nearly changed her entire approach to the season to compensate, including practices, conditioning and overall philosophy. She made it work with seven scholarship players and won a national championship.
After dancing in the rainbow confetti and cutting down the nets, the Irish surprised McGraw in the locker room with an ice water bath. The celebration included a handful of former players, athletic director Jack Swarbrick and university president Father John I. Jenkins — who was wearing a national championship hat.
“We were able to win with six players against anybody’s 12-13-14-15,” Mabrey said. “We’re just the best in the country.”