COLUMBUS, Ohio — First she punched the padded support behind the basket in frustration.
A few minutes later she threw her hands in the air in exultation.
As her last shot dropped through the net, the most frustrating 39 minutes, 57 seconds of Arike Ogunbowale’s young basketball life vanished into the same air that would soon be filled by confetti.
Her 3-pointer in the final second — and it will go down as the greatest last-second shot in championship game history even if there was still one-tenth of a second left on the clock — lifted Notre Dame to a 61-58 win against Mississippi State and the biggest comeback in championship game history.
It also bumped the game-winning shot she hit Friday, which beat UConn in overtime in the semifinals, one spot down basketball’s greatest-hits list.
Ogunbowale fell five points shy of becoming the fifth player to score 150 points in one NCAA tournament, but never has naming the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player been more of a foregone conclusion. As Notre Dame associate coach Niele Ivey put it, Ogunbowale hit the shot of a lifetime — then did it again less than 48 hours later.
“To do that twice in one weekend, the biggest stage in college basketball, it’s crazy,” Ogunbowale admitted.
The sequel also looked unlikely for much of the evening in Columbus. After a quick start, Notre Dame ran aground against Mississippi State’s defense. Bringing the ball up court or executing an inbounds pass became perilous adventures. No one bore the brunt of the frustration more than Ogunbowale. She missed 9 of 10 shots in the opening half. She had missed two more shots by the time Notre Dame reached its nadir, trailing by 15 points with a little less than seven minutes to play in the third quarter. Even as Notre Dame rallied and pulled level, the frustration of the cold shooting showed when she smacked the stanchion after a miss.
“I was missing a lot of bunnies with the layups, it was a little frustrating,” Ogunbowale said. “But I knew I had to keep shooting, keep going to the basket. My teammates, they tell me to keep shooting, but I think that’s just my mentality. I’m never going to stop.”
She nearly hit a much less dramatic, and higher percentage, game winner after Notre Dame’s Jackie Young came up with a steal on a scramble (and what Mississippi State will forever believe was a Marina Mabrey foul on Morgan William) with less than 10 seconds to play in the game. But Mississippi State center Teaira McCowan’s foul just before Young passed the ball instead gave Notre Dame the ball to inbound in the offensive end with three second left.
Arike Ogunbowale sinks a game-winning 3-pointer for the Fighting Irish to claim the national championship against the Bulldogs.
It was the 6-foot-7 McCowan’s fifth foul, which is why the ball wasn’t even supposed to be in Ogunbowale’s hands for the final play. The primary option was post Jessica Shepard on the near block. Shepard had hit 8-of-10 shots to that point and led Notre Dame with 19 points.
“Because Jess was playing so well and McCowan had fouled out,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of going through Shepard instead of Friday’s hero. “We definitely thought we had an advantage in there. Plus, they had a foul to give, I thought. So we didn’t want to do anything that was going away from the basket, where they could maybe [foul and] take some time off the clock. We thought get as close to the basket as you can with Jess. She could turn and shoot and maybe get fouled. That was the first option.
“Arike hadn’t been shooting the ball particularly well. Jess was.”
Mississippi State took a timeout the first time Notre Dame set up to inbound the ball. What Notre Dame wanted to do was apparent.
“We knew they were going to come into their post player because Teaira had just fouled out,” Mississippi State guard Blair Schaefer said. “We doubled that, we took away their first option.”
Initially guarding Young as she inbounded the ball, Schaefer dropped off by design to help on Shepard in the post.
“We had [Zion Campbell] behind her because she’s smaller, and we had Blair to sag back on her,” Bulldogs associate head coach Johnnie Harris said of Shepard. “So they didn’t get that option. The second option, they were screening up top — we switched the screen, but we didn’t deny it.”
On the perimeter, Mississippi State’s Victoria Vivans guarded Kathryn Westbeld, and Roshunda Johnson guarded Ogunbowale. When Westbeld set a screen on Johnson, Ogunbowale got between the Mississippi State defenders and the ball on the sideline.
“When we say we’re going to switch something, that means we’re going to switch to deny,” Schaefer said. “But we didn’t switch to deny. They’re great players and they made that one more [play] tonight.”
Notre Dame associate coach Carol Owens noted how important to the whole sequence it was that Ogunbowale moved so quickly and assertively toward the ball.
“Last time, against Connecticut, we couldn’t get the ball in and they stole it,” Owens said of a botched play at the end of regulation in that game. “She just came in and boxed her man out and got the ball.”
No less important was Young’s decision making. Her ability to take on much of point guard duties in the second half was key to Notre Dame rallying in the first place. On the final play, the sophomore showed that vision and poise by not forcing the ball to Shepard.
Notre Dame still had two timeouts if it needed them, but Young didn’t panic.
“For me, taking the ball out of bounds, whatever I was looking at, I didn’t like the way it looked,” Young said. “Before that I had told Arike, ‘Hey, if this matchup doesn’t look right, make sure you come back to the ball.’ I made sure she was heading my way and I passed it to her. When I gave it to her, I knew she was going to do something big.”
Ogunbowale was a step from the sideline and still well beyond the 3-point line when she caught the short pass. With her back to the basket and three seconds left, there was no opportunity to drive. And for a right-handed shooter, there was really only one direction to go without creating an awkward shot back across her body. Not that the corner 3 is necessarily her favorite.
“If I could have picked a shot, I would have chose a layup,” Ogunbowale said. “It’s not what I really wanted, it’s just what happened.”
Ogunbowale spun toward the baseline, took two dribbles and launched a shot off essentially one leg, her left leg trailing in the air before she landed well out of bounds.
It bears repeating that, at that moment, Ogunbowale had missed 15 of 20 shots in the biggest game of her life. She had missed jump shots and layups. Normally a lock from the line, she had even missed two free throws. But from the moment she arrived in South Bend, she has always looked for the next shot. Among the throng in the locker room after the win was WNBA point guard Lindsay Allen, who played the past two seasons with Ogunbowale.
“She was coming in the gym shooting, no matter what,” Allen said. “No matter if she hit the first five shots or missed the first 10 shots, she was going to keep shooting. We had that confidence in her. With her it was just learning when to take those shots and when to risk taking those sort of iffy shots during the course of a game. But she’s learned over time and she’s hit huge shots over the course of her career, none bigger than in the Final Four.”
Notre Dame’s consistent excellence over almost the past decade created a line of succession from Skylar Diggins to Kayla McBride to Jewell Loyd. One star followed another.
“Her and Sky are probably the most confident players I’ve been around,” Ivey said. “She doesn’t show too much emotion. When she gets frustrated, she fouls. That’s her way of kind of relieving the frustration. She punches things. She gets mad. But she never thinks she can’t score.”
Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw says her team came out with a new belief in the second half, which led them to the comeback win in the national championship game.
So, no, there wasn’t any doubt in her mind that she would take the shot or that it would go in — certainly no doubt she would admit.
“She always practices that shot in warm-ups, and it irritates me because she misses it a lot,” Mabrey said. “We’ll be trying to move to our next drill in warm-ups, and she’ll shoot that. Honestly, it doesn’t go in all that often.
“I saw her do the shot tonight, and I thought, ‘That’s good.’ I had a really good angle and I saw the rotation, and I was like, ‘Wow, she is the absolute GOAT.'”
Not all involved were quite so sure.
“I didn’t have a clue,” Shepard said. “I was just going in for the rebound again. But after last game, you’ve kind of got to count on it going in.”
The trajectory helped, but the ball seemed to hang in the air longer than physics should allow.
“This one was such a high arc-er, I was like, ‘I can’t tell if that’s going to go in or not,'” Notre Dame associate coach Carol Owens said. “The UConn [game-winning shot] definitely looked truer than any shot — her combo move and then the shot.
“This one was like, ‘I need to get this up so the shot clock doesn’t go off.'”
Arike Ogunbowale explains she practices game-winning situations all the time, which helped her make two big shots to lead Notre Dame to a national championship.
Lili Thompson was the first player with her hand in the air on the Notre Dame bench, the ball not yet at the basket as she counted it good. Thompson was among the reasons this wasn’t supposed to be a championship year for the Fighting Irish. Not this year. A former standout at Stanford, she transferred to Notre Dame for her final season and was expected to handle a lion’s share of the minutes at point guard. An ACL tear, one of four for the Fighting Irish, ended that.
But down to six players, Notre Dame got its shot. Ogunbowale took care of the rest.
“That’s two nights in a row,” Thompson said. “I mean, I have as much faith as anybody as her — I’m surprised, but I’m not surprised she knocked it down. It looked good.
“That’s Arike, she makes those crazy shots in big moments.”
It was a stage made for her. And in what was undoubtedly the greatest Final Four in the history of the women’s game, people took notice. Ogunbowale swore that the national championship meant more than the shoutout from Kobe Bryant, but the grin on her face after the game as she recounted the tweet she got from the Black Mamba suggested it was a close call.
“For me to be looking up to him my whole life really,” Ogunbowale said. “And for him to say my name, follow me, it’s just unreal.”
Certainly no more unreal than hitting two game-winning shots in the Final Four.