Friday night proved to be historic for women’s college basketball. For the first time, both NCAA Final Four semifinals went to overtime, with one coming down to the final second as Nationwide Arena provided a showcase for the best the sport has to offer.
Now Notre Dame and Mississippi State face the same challenge: How do you build upon what is already being regarded as one of the best days in the history of the sport?
“It’s hard,” Notre Dame junior forward Jessica Shepard said Saturday. “You go beat a team that you lost to earlier in the season, a team that was undefeated, but for us we know what our end goal is and it’s not to lose in the national championship.”
First, Mississippi State did its part by overcoming a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit before forcing overtime and beating Louisville 73-63. That left undefeated Connecticut, the sport’s biggest lightning rod, to fight a Fighting Irish team down to seven available scholarship players because of a rash of season-ending injuries.
The nightcap delivered even more suspense with a 91-89 Notre Dame win decided by an Arike Ogunbowale jumper with a second remaining. Back at the team hotel, the Bulldogs were watching. They started in separate rooms before eventually making their way to Victoria Vivians’, where they yelled and commiserated with every play and late mistake.
“You’ve got to enjoy the moment because whoever wins, you play, and they’re both great teams,” said Vivians, who scored 25 points against the Cardinals. “I don’t want to play either of them, (Notre Dame or UConn). I wish the championship was (Friday) night. You’re rooting for both of them because they’re both in the Final Four. They both deserve to be in the championship game.”
Just getting to their rooms presented a challenge for the Bulldogs. Senior guard Morgan William said the players had to enter the hotel through a back door to avoid the packed lobby.
They at least had a shot at an earlier bedtime than their next opponents. Fighting Irish players didn’t make it to bed until, in some cases, 4 a.m., because their toppling of the Huskies ensured that their phones kept buzzing and ringing early into the morning.
“It got to the point where we just turned off our notifications so we could get some sleep,” Notre Dame sophomore guard Jackie Young said.
This isn’t new territory for Mississippi State, which reached the title game last year after beating UConn, only to lose to South Carolina in Dallas. Notre Dame won the championship in 2001 when it beat Purdue, but has since lost four national championship games.
The opportunity to not only add an elusive piece of hardware to the trophy case but carry over Friday’s buzz was recognized by both teams during Saturday’s interviews. Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said he is “proud of my sport” and described it as a “great day” for women’s basketball.
Notre Dame junior guard Marina Mabrey said it was a night that saw nobody change the channel away from either game.
“I think it opened peoples’ eyes, the whole world, showing them that we can play,” she said. “We can be entertaining. UConn isn’t bad for women’s basketball. Women’s basketball grew (Friday) night, a lot.”
The Bulldogs have a saying about such situations, Schaefer said — “one more.”
“One more when you’re playing — one more rebound, one more toughness play, one more charge, one more steal, one more stop — it’s just one more,” Schaefer said. “For us I think that’s where we are right now: it’s one more.”