COLUMBUS, Ohio — It had been 22 minutes since her high-arcing, buzzer-beating 3-pointer splashed through the net to give Notre Dame its first national championship in 17 years, but Arike Ogunbowale still looked like she was in disbelief.
Standing atop the podium on center court at Nationwide Arena on Sunday, confetti everywhere around her and a trophy in front of her, Ogunbowale’s wide smile disappeared for a second as she shook her head.
Did that just happen?
It’s a question to which Ogunbowale and all witnesses knew the answer — as improbable as it seemed when Notre Dame and its struggling offense trailed 30-17 at halftime, or by 15 with 6:41 left in the third quarter, or by five with 1:58 to go; or, even, as Ogunbowale’s off-balance, fadeaway shot left her hand.
It happened. Oh, yes. It happened.
“Two buzzer-beaters in two of the biggest games of our career, of the season, it’s just unreal,” Ogunbowale said later outside her locker wearing a white national championship T-shirt. “I mean, I practice all the time in the gym, shooting fadeaway jump shots like that, fadeaway 3s. I don’t know. I guess it just finally came true.”
Tied 58-58 after a dizzying back-and-forth which included Mississippi State’s star center Teaira McCowan fouling out, the inbounds pass with :03 left wasn’t supposed to go to Ogunbowale. That’s not what coach Muffet McGraw drew up, anyways.
McGraw wanted to find junior forward Jessica Shepard, who played exceptionally and finished with 19 points, inside near the basket. Since the 6-foot-7 McCowan was out of the game, and Mississippi State had a foul to give, McGraw thought it was best to get a look closer to the basket.
In theory, the National Coach of the Year was probably right — especially because Ogunbowale hadn’t been shooting the ball particularly well against the Bulldogs.
Ogunbowale finished the first half 1-of-10 from the field. But she’s a scorer — her team’s leading scorer — and what scorers do is keep shooting. Her teammates always tell her that, and so it’s what she did.
She did it Friday after starting 2-of-8, and she did it Sunday.
Before the final shot, she scored 13 points in the second half as her team willed itself back into the game, including nine in the pivotal third quarter. She finished with 18.
But Shepard was well-guarded as sophomore guard Jackie Young tried to inbound the ball. Young had to start searching for other options, and she had talked with Ogunbowale about being the secondary look.
Then Ogunbowale broke through a screen near the right side of the 3-point line, and Young found her.
Two dribbles and countless stopped hearts later, the shot went up, then it went down through the net and onto highlight reels forever.
“When it went through, I couldn't honestly believe that it went in,” McGraw said.
But McGraw does believe in Ogunbowale. In her time coaching, including her 31 seasons at Notre Dame, McGraw said she’s never had a player quite like Ogunbowale.
It’s her confidence, her swagger; the way she lets things roll off her back. She doesn’t carry missed shots and mistakes around with her, McGraw said.
Ogunbowale is focused on the next possession, the next shot. It’s why she can start 2-of-8 or 1-of-10, yet still go on to make the big play when her injury-riddled team needs her the most.
It’s why Ogunbowale can say that her off-balance, desperation 3-pointer still “felt good,” and it doesn’t sound like she was kidding. She’s got that much confidence
And it’s why — when the disbelief and shock eventually give way to a comprehendible reality — Arike Ogunbowale will be able to stop and know this to be true:
Two days after sending her team to the title game in heroic fashion, she took an inbounds pass from Jackie Young and dribbled twice. She rose up, falling away from the basket like she’s done in the gym so many times before. She let a 3-point shot from the right wing go, and it went up, hanging in the air while the arena fell silent.
Then it went down, and her team erupted in celebration. And after the confetti fell and the trophy was presented, she stood there on the podium, shaking her head in disbelief. Because that really happened.