COLUMBUS, Ohio — Admittedly still at a loss for words as she initially addressed the media after completing her hardest season of coaching by claiming the game’s ultimate prize, Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw mustered up what many Fighting Irish supporters probably uttered the second one of the most-thrilling national championship games in Final Four history had ended.
“Thank you, Jesus, on Easter Sunday.”
Star guard Arike Ogunbowale, once again the hero of an Irish Final Four victory, immediately responded to her coach’s thanks to the heavens, with the widest smile on her face.
For the second consecutive game, Ogunbowake ended one of the all-time great Final Four games with another buzzer-beater, as her three-pointer in front of her bench with 0.1 seconds remaining lifted Notre Dame to a 61-58 victory over Mississippi State in the national championship game on Sunday night at Nationwide Arena. The win now gives Notre Dame its second national championship in basketball, and it comes 17 years to the day when McGraw led the Irish to their first national championship win in 2001.
The win could not have come in any more dramatic fashion, a feat made even more astonishing given that Notre Dane had just knocked off previously undefeated Connecticut on an Ogunbowale jumper at the buzzer in the national semifinals just two days prior. Against the Bulldogs, the Fighting Irish ended the game on an 8-0 run, with the final three points coming on the thrilling three-pointer by Ogunbowale after Mississippi State committed a foul with three seconds remaining to prevent a fast break opportunity.
“When I saw it travel a little bit, I thought so,” said Ogunbowale in describing what was going through her mind when releasing her game-winning shot. “But that last play, there was just a lot going on. I can’t even describe it.”
One word that is apt to use to describe the Fighting Irish this season, and in this game, is resilient. After scoring only three points in the second quarter, Notre Dame found itself down 13 at halftime and, early in the third quarter, were down 40-25 against the team that was looking to complete a national championship run after losing in last season’s national championship game to South Carolina.
Notre Dame’s response was an 18-1 run to remarkably take the lead early in the fourth quarter, as Ogunbowale ended up scoring 16 of her 18 points in the second half. However, the Bulldogs once again were able to reestablish control, as a Roshunda Johnson three-pointer gave Mississippi State a 58-53 lead with 1:58 remaining in the fourth quarter. On the next possession, Marina Mabrey buried a three-pointer from the left win to cut the Bulldogs’ lead to two.
Notre Dame only managed to make two threes in the contest, but the timing of those long-range makes – Mabrey’s three and Ogunbowale’s buzzer-beater – was impeccable, if not immaculate.
“The fighting spirit of Notre Dame is just amazing,” said McGraw. “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.”
Even with the leadership of those players, it still was hard to envision the Fighting Irish in this position even just a a month ago, when the Irish were reduced to just seven scholarship players; Four different players on the roster had suffered ACL tears during the season, including All-American center Brianna Turner and point guard Lili Thompson, who had transferred to the program from Stanford.
Mississippi State had been in this position just one year ago, losing in the national championship game to the Gamecocks after having beaten another previously-undefeated Connecticut team in the national semifinals. The Bulldogs defeated Louisville in overtime in this year’s national semifinals, and it looked as if they would finish the job this year once it opened up a sizable lead in the second half. Center Teiara McCowan was a near unstoppable force in the middle on her way to 18 points and 17 rebounds.
Only 118 seconds, and with a five-point lead in tow, separated Mississippi State from its first national championship in any sport.
A wild sequence of events immediately preceded Ogunbowale’s game-winner. McCowan missed a wide-open layup with 28 seconds to go which would have given Mississippi State the lead, then Notre Dame, after grabbing the rebound off McCowan’s miss, turned the ball over. Heading up the court, Bulldogs’ guard Morgan William was knocked down to the ground while having the ball stripped by Mabrey at half court. No foul was called on Mabrey’s steal attempt, but McCowan fouled the Irish’s Jackie Young after she gained possession of the ball with three seconds left. Though McCowan’s foul was her fifth and final foul, it occurred right before Young passed the ball to Ogunbowale, who was wide open underneath the basket and surely would have won the game on a layup.
Instead, Ogunbowale won it on her second miraculous long-range shot in as many games.
“You’re up five with 1:40, it’s my job to get them home, and I didn’t get them home,” said Mississippi State head coach Vic Schafer, who was an assistant coach on the Texas A&M team that defeated Notre Dame in the 2011 national championship game. “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.”
After Notre Dame’s 2001 title, it took a decade just to get back to the Final Four, the one where it lost to Texas A&M. Three more national championship appearances followed 2011 – and three more losses in national championship games were the results. McGraw, from that 2001 win, turned a great team then into a great women’s basketball program now. However, that second national championship had always eluded her. Until now.
“I think we’ve established a great culture,” said McGraw, recently inducted into the Springfield Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “I think starting in 2011, when we were able to get back to the Final Four for the first time in ten years, and I think the culture just perpetuates itself, starting with the seniors and how they address the team, how they indoctrinate the freshmen into our culture, and the work ethic. I think that’s what really separates the good teams.”