Arike Ogunbowale had already lived every basketball player’s fantasy this weekend.
The Notre Dame guard ousted undefeated Connecticut with an 18-foot buzzer-beater Friday night in a national semifinal. To repeat such a feat in the championship game, well, that would strain the limits of believability, right?
Not for Ogunbowale and this unlikely Fighting Irish team.
The junior swished an off-balance three-pointer with 0.1 of a second left Sunday night to give the Irish a 61-58 victory over Mississippi State in front of 19,599 stunned fans at Nationwide Arena.
“Anytime I’m in the gym, I’m doing last-second shots, fadeaway shots, different types of shots,” Ogunbowale said. “I guess I’m just made for that situation.”
Ogunbowale was not the first option on the play. Notre Dame called timeout with 3 seconds left after Mississippi State’s 6-foot-7 Teaira McCowan fouled Jackie Young after the teams traded quick turnovers.
That was the fifth foul for McCowan, who finished with 17 points and 18 rebounds. Without her in the middle, Notre Dame wanted to get the ball to its center, Jessica Shepard.
But Mississippi State’s hounding defense made inbounds-passer Young go to Plan B.
“Jackie and I talked about it,” Ogunbowale said. “She said if I can’t get Jess the ball, come and get it, and that’s what I did.”
Mississippi State All-American Victoria Vivians was draped on her, but she was able to launch a rainbow of a shot.
“It felt good, but you never know until it goes through the basket,” Ogunbowale said.
It hit nothing but net.
It was a remarkable shot — and victory — by a team that has overcome so much. The Fighting Irish (35-3) lost four players to ACL tears this season, leaving them with only seven scholarship players.
Few gave them much of a chance against mighty UConn. Their chances against Mississippi State looked all but dead when they scored only three points in the second quarter and trailed 40-25 in the third quarter.
But Notre Dame scored 18 of the next 19 points to take a 43-41 lead. The Bulldogs (37-2) reasserted themselves and led 58-53 with 1:54 left on a three by Roshunda Johnson that just beat the shot clock.
But Marina Mabrey answered with a three-pointer — Notre Dame’s first — and Young tied it with 44 seconds left.
Mississippi State called timeout and set up a play for McCowan. But her shot from the paint missed, and Notre Dame rebounded. As the teams exchanged turnovers, Bulldogs guard Morgan William got bumped, but no foul was called.
“No whistle, so it wasn’t a foul,” said William, whose buzzer-beater in last year’s semifinal ended UConn’s NCAA-record 111-game winning streak.
Mississippi State lost last year’s championship game to South Carolina. Once again, its season ended in heartbreak.
Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer blamed himself for not being able to secure what would have been the program’s first national title.
“You're up five with 1:40, it's my job to get them home, and I didn't get them home,” he said. “I'll wear that maybe for the rest of my career.”
He and his daughter, senior guard Blair Schaefer, were teary-eyed during the postgame news conference.
“This is the toughest, most-resilient team I've ever seen,” Vic Schaefer said. “Their competitive fire and competitive spirit is second to none. Congratulations to Notre Dame, but I'm awfully proud of this group.”
Notre Dame won its second national title exactly 17 years after its only previous one.
“It’s just surreal right now,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw, who gained her 800th career victory. “It’s unbelievable. For us to finish two games in a row at the buzzer, it couldn’t be more exciting. Seventeen years to the day. This is for all the players in between.”
Vivians led all scorers with 21 points. Shepard led Notre Dame with 19 points. Ogunbowale had 18 on only 6-of-21 shooting.
But that last shot is all anyone will remember.