Notre Dame didn’t play a completely perfect game to upset the previously undefeated Connecticut Huskies in the Final Four. But an Arike Ogunbowale deep two-point game-winning shot made sure it was enough. The Fighting Irish played well defensively for stretches, shot well from the field, and had just a little bit of luck to seal the deal for a trip to the National Championship game. It’ll go down as a masterpiece for Irish head coach Muffet McGraw.
If McGraw looked at the box score before the game tipped off and saw UConn would score 89 points, Gabby Williams would double-double, Napheesa Collier would score 24, Katie Lou Samuelson would knock down four threes, and Azura Stevens would come off the bench for 19 points, she’d have probably told her team she was proud of their efforts and packed her bags.
But Notre Dame had flashes of brilliance that contained Connecticut’s unearthly powers for periods of time that made just enough of a difference to bridge the talent gap. This wasn’t supposed to be the Irish’s game after all. They lost four role players to ACL injuries over the season, and Connecticut couldn’t possibly lose in back-to-back seasons in the Final Four.
Yet it happened in a 91-89 overtime win against the unbeatable. Here’s how.
Katie Lou Samuelson had to WORK to get open shoots (for the most part)
Samuelson is the Huskies’ leading scorer who does most of her damage from the three-point line. She’s shot an inhuman 48 percent from deep throughout the season, and always seems to bail out her teammates when a play goes dead. Not this time (mostly).
The Irish kept a defender at Samuelson’s hip at all times, forcing her to pass away looks from behind the arc, or put her out of her comfort zone off the dribble. It was maddening for Huskies fans waiting for their star to take over, but forced just enough empty possessions for Notre Dame to pull off the win.
Samuelson still played well, still had 16 points (one below her average) and still knocked down four threes. But slowing down one of the best players in college hoops on the best team in the world in the Final Four to any degree is a big deal. And this game came down to one possession.
Connecticut left the wrong player open: Jackie Young
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma gambled on who to stick his strongest defenders on and lost. Of course, his picks were logical, as Young was Notre Dame’s fourth-best scorer this season. Who knew she’d explode for 32 points?
UConn had its strongest defenders, Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse, swap between guarding Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey, and had its best big, Napheesa Collier, stick Jessica Shepard. Connecticut wanted to make Notre Dame’s “others” step up.
Problem for them is they did.
Everyone underestimated Young’s ability to shoot from deep, get to the line and drive the lane. She had 32 points on 10 made shots (two from deep) and 10 free throws.
Young never cooled down.
Notre Dame gambled on who to defend too. But the Irish guessed right
The Irish flipped from man-to-man to zone a bit, but when defending one-on-one, they made sure to pay extra attention to Williams in the lane, Samuelson from the outside and Collier in the paint. If The Irish were to lose, McGraw made it clear: She wanted Crystal Dangerfield and Kia Nurse to be the reasons why.
(This is where the little bit of luck came in.)
Dangerfield and Nurse are both terrific — you have to be to play in UConn’s rotation — but as the more one-dimensional players of the six Auriemma rolled out, Notre Dame left them in space rather than leave Williams, Collier or Samuelson, and made them take over. Instead, the 45 and 44 percent three-point shooters went a combined 2-of-15.
And their shots were open, and ones they’d usually make!
Arike Ogunbowale was a fearless star
Notre Dame rides through the highs and lows of its undaunted leading scorer, Ogunbowale, who has the confidence to shoot out of her slumps at any moment. At points it can be admirable, while others it’s frustrating, but they needed her unwavering confidence to knock off the Huskies. And that’s exactly what she brought.
Ogunbowale didn’t have a great opening half, and only shot 9-of-21 from the field, but she showed up in the clutch. She scored 15 of the Irish’s final 32 points in the fourth quarter by way of drives, mid-range jumpers, foul shots and threes. She was an offensive threat in every way.
Though no shot will be remembered more than her game-winning shot over the outstretched arms of Collier.
That’s where she cemented herself as a Notre Dame legend.