By Mark Brown
Cincinnati Herald Contributor
The 2018 Women’s Final Four somehow managed to awkwardly follow the script of the 2017 Oscars mishap…..where the movie La La Land won, then mysteriously lost, best picture category to Moonlight…. all in the span of a few seconds!
In the estimation of many (outside Louisville, Notre Dame, and Mississippi State fans) national powerhouse UConn, and their undefeated 36-0 record, were a sure thing to capture their 12th national championship. However UConn’s longtime nemesis, Notre Dame (33-3) had not yet signed- off on the final envelope reveal.
The Fighting Irish would have quite a bit to say, as they battled yet another dominant Huskie team to a 79-79 semifinal tie in regulation, and an ultimate 91-89 upset win–on a last second shot by Notre Dame junior guard Arike Ogunbowale. “That definitely wasn’t the play call,” she stated with a smile. As to it going in, she added. “I mean it felt good. I didn’t know it was going in but it felt good. ”
The win propelled the Irish to the national title game versus Mississippi State, who earlier in the day had dispatched a tough Louisville Cardinal team 73-63 in overtime as well. The dedicated Notre Dame fans who saw this coming surely must have been clinging to their four-leaf- clovers and leprechauns for added security.
No matter how they did it, Notre Dame got the job done, and the presumed final envelope was filled with a retraction; giving the Irish their shot at a second national title in school history.
Afterwards, a somber UConn head coach, Geno Auriemma, reiterated how tough it is to win a national title. “You really can’t describe what goes into…..what goes into getting here and trying to win a championship,” said Auriemma. “It’s very, very difficult. For a long time we made it look like it was easy, but it’s very, very difficult.”
To the contrary, Muffet McGraw, head coach for Notre Dame, was thrilled to see her team have one more chance at a title. “This is, I think the second or third time we’ve beat them (UConn) in the semifinal. That’s been our lucky charm. Can’t seem to beat them in the final,” stated McGraw. “But this one…to come from behind…to have a big lead, squander that, come from behind. And with this team….I mean this one’s really special.” With regards to the last second shot from Ogunbowale, McGraw confessed. “I probably should thank every catholic from coast to coast for all the prayers on Good Friday at the end of that game.”
But that still left the final envelope a mystery; as Notre Dame now 34-3 had to face an equally enthusiastic 37-1 Mississippi State team—who was not willing to concede victory to the Irish simply because they’d knocked-off UConn. After–all, the Bulldogs had achieved an equal victory over UConn last season in much the same manner.
Fitting as it should be, the two remaining number one seeds squared off in the national title game; and as anticipated, a classic ending was bound to ensue.
After an early run Mississippi State took command, leading Notre Dame by as many as 15 points, and closed out the first half up 30-17. However their lead would prove to be temporary, as the Irish came storming back in the 3rd quarter, out-scoring the Bulldogs 24-11, and tied the game at 41-41. In the 4th quarter both teams battled closely, and similar to the semifinals versus UConn, Notre Dame once again found their four-leaf-clover in guard Ogunbowale.
Tied 58-58 with just 3 seconds remaining in regulation Ogunbowale topped her semifinal heroics by nailing a 3 pointer with just 0.1 seconds remaining—sealing a 61-58 win for the Fighting Irish. For her, it seems practice does make perfect. “I work for this in practice,” said Ogunbowale. “I practice late game moments all the time. It just felt right.” After the shot, a celebratory Irish team cleared the bench but had to briefly contain their composure for the tenth of a second that remained.
Once the clock read 0.0 the entire Notre Dame bench rushed the court—and much like the emotional swing of La La Land winning, then losing, a stunned Mississippi State team slowly exited the court— trying to grasp what had just taken place.
In the end one team had earned their chance to bask in the proverbial Moonlight of college basketball’s elite. “I’m just so speechless at this point,” stated a smiling Muffet McGraw. “To see this team come back from yet another huge deficit….to see Arike make an incredible shot… to see the resilience of a team that never gave up.”
With the final envelope being witnessed before 19,000 basketball fans at Nationwide Arena, the 2018 Women’s Final Four had come full-circle. (Drumroll)……and the 2018 National Championship goes to…..The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame!