COLUMBUS, Ohio — There had been a slew of questions Saturday, the day after Notre Dame and Mississippi State had advanced to the national title game in an instant classic of a Final Four, as to how the two programs planned to top their thrilling semifinal bouts.
In its answer, Notre Dame decided not to mess with perfection.
With three seconds left in the NCAA tournament championship game Sunday, the same Notre Dame guard who hit the buzzer-beater to upset No. 1 seed Connecticut in overtime in Friday’s national semifinal had the ball in her hands again. Arike Ogunbowale launched herself, legs splayed in the air, and put as much power as she could into a confident three-pointer from the far right corner with a defender’s hand in her face.
The shot — or perhaps the shot, Part II — swished through the net with 0.1 seconds left. It pushed Notre Dame past fellow No. 1 seed Mississippi State, 61-58, as the Fighting Irish earned their second NCAA championship 17 years to the day after winning their first.
Notre Dame’s players sprinted to the edge of the court and, after everyone had to collect themselves to play the final fraction of a second, shiny confetti fell as 19,599 roaring fans in attendance digested what they had just seen.
“Thank you, Jesus, on Easter Sunday,” Fighting Irish Coach Muffet McGraw said, beaming, as she opened her postgame news conference, her hair still damp from a Gatorade bath.
“Amen. Hallelujah,” Ogunbowale replied.
The coach did at least partially attribute the shot to some divine intervention. She has won her two title games at Notre Dame by a combined five points, and this one required that her team pull off the largest comeback — they trailed by 15 midway through the third quarter — in all 33 NCAA tournament title games that have been played.
The 62-year-old McGraw, in her 31st season at Notre Dame, wrapped up a marvelous weekend for women’s basketball by joining Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, Baylor’s Kim Mulkey, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and Southern California’s Linda Sharp in an elite club of coaches with multiple national titles to their name.
“Phenomenal for women’s basketball. Three exciting games. I hope the ratings reflect it,” McGraw said. “. . . Definitely one of the best Final Fours since, well, 2001, right?”
The word McGraw used to describe her team so many times this season was “resilient,” because the Fighting Irish played the majority of the campaign without four players — including a point guard and an all-American — all of whom had torn anterior cruciate ligaments. They played for an ACC championship and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament anyway.
On Sunday, they proved their resilience once again.
Notre Dame unfurled a 16-1 run in the third quarter to rebound from the 15-point deficit, and the score was tied again, 58-58, when Mississippi State’s dominant center Teaira McCowan missed a layup in the final seconds. McCowan was forced to commit her fifth foul of the game at midcourt to prevent a Fighting Irish fast break, which queued the set play off of which Ogunbowale got the ball one last time.
The play was designed to get the ball to Jessica Shepard, who led Notre Dame with 19 points, but inbounder Jackie Young told Ogunbowale to be ready. If Young didn’t like her first look, Ogunbowale — who had made just one field goal in the entire first half — was the option.
“We had confidence in her,” Young said. “As soon as she put the shot up, I knew it was going in.”
It was Ogunbowale’s only three-pointer of the game, just the second all night for Notre Dame. The junior from Milwaukee finished with 18 points, and point guard Marina Mabrey added 10.
“‘What though the odds,’ that’s part of our fight song,” McGraw said. “The fighting spirit of Notre Dame is just amazing. Relentless, competitive, they have a swagger. They believe in themselves with the confidence that starts with Arike and Marina and just filters down through the team.”
Notre Dame’s win ended a remarkable season for a Mississippi State team that has been trying to break through to the upper echelon of women’s basketball for years.
This season had been about redemption and validation for the Bulldogs, who ended Connecticut’s 111-game win streak in last year’s Final Four and then lost in the title game. They responded this year by going 37-2, including their own overtime win Friday in the Final Four against top-seeded Louisville, with their one loss before Sunday coming in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game against the same South Carolina team that beat them in the national final a year ago.
“Notre Dame made one more play tonight, so we congratulate them,” Bulldogs Coach Vic Schaefer said. “And at the same time, these kids right here are champions, 37-2. That’s hard to do. Especially living in my league.”
“You’re up five with 1:40 [to play], it’s my job to get them home, and I didn’t get them home. It’s always been my philosophy up four, down four, as a head coach, it’s my job to get them home inside of four minutes. And I didn’t get them home today. I’ll wear that maybe for the rest of my career.”
Mississippi State’s four seniors will graduate as the first class in school history to go to the NCAA tournament all four years. One of them, Victoria Vivians, led Mississippi State with 21 points. McCowan, a junior, had 18 points and 17 rebounds to record her 29th double-double of the season.
It was Vivians who leapt in front of Ogunbowale as she released a three-pointer, then turned and watched as history repeated.
“The kid made a shot,” Schaefer said. “Pat her on the butt, man. She made a great shot.”