TAMPA — Notre Dame stared down a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter to rival Connecticut in the national semifinals Friday night at Amalie Arena.
And then they did what any reasonable national championship hopeful would do. They got the ball to Arike Ogunbowale.
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Last year’s Final Four hero – Queen of the Buzzer-Beaters – did not need quite the same level of drama to get the job done this time. Instead, she just went to work, being the unguardable one-on-one talent she is. The senior shooting guard put up 14 of her 23 points in the final quarter, 11 of them in the final five minutes, to propel the Fighting Irish to an 81-76 win over rival Connecticut to reach the national championship game for the second year in a row.
The defending national champions (35-3) will take on Baylor Sunday night in what promises to be a compelling matchup of teams led by veteran players playing their best basketball of the season.
“Arike did what Arike does,” said Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, who will be coaching in her seventh NCAA title game and looking for her third title.
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And she had a lot of help. Brianna Turner, the senior post who missed last year’s title run with an injury, is making the most of her final opportunities in a Notre Dame jersey, finishing with 15 rebounds, 15 rebounds and five blocks.
Turner was critical to the Irish’s success in the last minute of the game, collecting two blocks, two defensive rebounds and a made free-throw that gave the Irish the lead for good down the final stretch.
Senior forward Jessica Shepard finished the game with 20 points and 13 rebounds.
“Jess is indispensable to what we do,” McGraw said. “She fits perfectly into our system. She is someone that loves to pass the ball. She probably wants to be a point guard. She went coast-to-coast on a steal. She is a great facilitator on the who is post. She makes our offense go.”
Connecticut (35-3) goes home without a championship for the third year in a row, the longest drought since they went five years without a title between 2004 and 2009. Seniors Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier lost only five games in their Connecticut careers, three of those losses coming at the Final Four.
Both Samuelson and Collier said the Huskies felt confident with a late lead. And then the shots stopped falling.
“Being up nine in the fourth quarter is a good position to be in,” 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.”
Samuelson finished with 20 points in her collegiate finale, all 20 coming in the second half. Collier ended up with 15 points and 13 rebounds. In fact, it was driving layup by Collier with 7:52 to go that gave the Huskies a 64-55 lead and pushed the Irish into a regrouping timeout.
“We had to get defensive stops,” Ogunbowale said. “I think we really as a team picked up our defense. We were scoring, but we weren't giving stops. We were trading buckets. Once we started getting stops, started getting scores, that's when we went on a run.”
Turner credited the maturity of a team that leans heavily on its upperclassmen to keep its poise down the stretch of this game, and many others.
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“Just making sure we're staying relaxed, not getting too anxious,” Turner said. “We knew against, like last week, coming out versus Stanford, coming out we were down, able to come back. Coach (McGraw) jokes we're a second half team. We knew we had to come back, whatever it took, no matter how many points it took.”
The Irish had defeated the Huskies by 18 points earlier in the season. Huskies coach Geno Auriemma acknowledged that Notre Dame was the better team then and now.
“Sometimes we try to make the game really, really complicated. It's not. It's not complicated,” Auriemma said. “Most teams are going to give you a chance to win the game. They gave us a chance to win the game, and we weren't good enough to win it. There's nothing wrong with that. They were better than us.
“They still had to win it. They still had to make those shots. When they were down nine, they could have missed the next five shots, we would have went up 17, but they didn't. Why? Because they're defending national champions, they have five All-Americans who are really, really good.”