TAMPA — The ball may not have been in her hand at the final buzzer this time, but make no mistake: The second national semifinal of this Final Four belonged to Arike Ogunbowale — again.
The senior guard has had quite a time since last April, when she hit back-to-back buzzer beaters to bring Notre Dame its second national title. That star turn begot further stardom off the court (see: a gig on “Dancing With the Stars,” a guest spot on “Ellen”) and more success on it (see: passing Skylar Diggins to become the Fighting Irish’s all-time leading scorer in February, Friday night here.)
Against Connecticut, Ogunbowale showed that she isn’t the kind of star who shines, then sputters; another clutch moment on the national stage proved — after she spent a season proving it, albeit in front of fewer eyes — that Ogunbowale is here to stay.
The senior scored 23 points, including 14 in a tense, decisive fourth quarter, to lift No. 1 seed Notre Dame past No. 2 seed Connecticut, 81-76, for the second year in a row in the Final Four. Friday marked the 50th meeting of the programs and the eighth in the national semifinals, where the Irish own a 5-3 edge over their archrivals.
“Arike in the second half did what Arike does,” Coach Muffet McGraw said.
Notre Dame (35-3) advanced to face No. 1 seed Baylor, which beat second-seeded Oregon, 72-67, in the first semifinal. Bears Coach Kim Mulkey, back for a rematch of the 2012 national title game in which she defeated McGraw to win Baylor’s second national title, sat one row behind Connecticut’s bench to take in the second game — a bolt of blond hair and a hot-pink suit in a swarm of Baylor green.
Ogunbowale and Notre Dame gave her plenty to think about.
“I don’t think it was any mystery who was going to be taking the majority of their shots in the fourth quarter,” Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said. “That’s the way they’ve always played since Arike has been there. She still has to make those shots, and she did.”
The Huskies led the Fighting Irish by nine, their biggest lead all game, before Ogunbowale scored 11 of her 14 fourth-quarter points. Notre Dame started its comeback with a three-pointer from Jackie Young, added a pair of free throws from Brianna Turner and poured on two straight threes, one from Ogunbowale and one from Mabrey, to pull even with 4:25 to play.
“I think we really as a team picked up our defense,” Ogunbowale said. “We were scoring, but we weren’t getting stops. We were trading buckets. Once we started getting stops, started getting scores, that’s when we went on a run.”
Jessica Shepard gave Notre Dame the lead for good with 2:40 left, and all the Fighting Irish needed were free throws after that as Connecticut started missing.
“Yeah, being up nine in the fourth quarter is a good position to be in,” Huskies senior Napheesa Collier said. “We did feel confident in that moment. Then after that, we weren’t making . . . the points we needed to and maintain the lead and extend the lead.”
Ogunbowale led the Fighting Irish with 23 points, and Shepard had a double-double with 20 points and 13 rebounds. In all, there were five Notre Dame scorers in double figures to outclass Connecticut’s four.
Katie Lou Samuelson led the Huskies with 20 points, and her senior partner-in-crime Collier had 15. Christyn Williams had 19.
With 4,743 combined points, Samuelson and Collier end their college careers as the highest scoring pair of classmates in Connecticut history. They had five losses in their four-year tenures.
“Five losses, and three of them are here, huh?” Auriemma said. “We said that in the locker room. It’s not apparent sometimes while you’re teammates with Lou and Napheesa, it’s not apparent until after they’re gone how much they did for you, how much they contributed to your success, how much you’re going to miss their presence every single day, on the court, off the court, doesn’t matter.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Notre Dame’s record was 35-4.
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