From Good Friday to Easter Sunday, Final Four ride for Notre Dame ends in championship win over Mississippi State, 61-58
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Notre Dame (35-3) beat Mississippi State, 61-58, Sunday night to take the 2018 national championship in front of 19,599 fans at Nationwide Arena in downtown Columbus. A buzzer-beating three-point shot from junior guard Arike Ogunbowale settled the win for the Fighting Irish who lived up to their moniker on the biggest stage in women’s college basketball.
After a regular season of managing a squad that included four players with debilitating ACL injuries, Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw rose to the occasion in the past few months, leading her players as they earned a No. 1 seed and began taking down teams, one by one, in the tournament. Junior forward Jessica Shepard, a transfer from Nebraska, led Notre Dame with 19 points plus six rebounds.
“They really dug deep,” said McGraw about her squad in her postgame TV interview. “It’s that Fighting Irish spirit. They just would not be denied. Such resilience, such perseverance. A great life lesson for them.”
MSU head coach Vic Schaefer echoed McGraw’s comments.
“Just like I saw on Friday night, there’s a tremendous passion, a relentlessness, a toughness, and a resiliency to that bunch, and they’re to be commended for that and for how they played today.”
Ogunbowale’s gutsy trey capped a record comeback effort as Notre Dame battled from a 15-point deficit, the largest margin a team has ever overcome on the way to a championship in tournament history. The victory gives the Irish their second title, 17 years to the day when they earned the championship in 2001 in Saint Louis.
While Notre Dame came out of the gate to amass a 6-0 lead with balanced scoring, MSU retaliated with an 11-0 run to build a 17-12 advantage and entered the second quarter leading 17-14. The Bulldogs absolutely dominated the second quarter, outscoring Notre Dame 13-3 with eight points from senior guard Victoria Vivians. MSU went into halftime with a 30-17 cushion over the Irish.
McGraw’s halftime speech to the Irish focused primarily on the mental aspect of the game, not logistics, according to senior forward Kathryn Westbeld.
“She was just going over what we needed to work on and what we weren’t doing. We really weren’t playing our game at all, and I think just kind of getting — she talked about getting our mental game back. I think a lot of us were shook a little bit. Our minds were kind of going everywhere. I think she tried to calm us down as much as possible and just get us focused on the main goal again.”
Early in the second half it seemed as if the Bulldogs would go home with the championship trophy as they led the Irish 40-25 after a trey from MSU senior guard Victoria Vivians at 6:41. However, the game took an auspicious turn for the Irish 18 seconds later when Westbeld made a layup that started a 16-1 run to end the quarter. That offensive spurt resulted in a tie game and the teams were even to begin the last period.
Notre Dame edged MSU 20-17 in scoring during the last ten minutes. It was not an easy battle as the game had five ties and two lead changes in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs led by as much as five with less than two minutes left in the contest. The last tie in the game was 58 all with 45 seconds to go.
Ogunbowale, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, had another standout game during the weekend. Her three-point dagger with just a second to go went straight to the heart of MSU fans in the arena when the game was tied at 58 all and championship hope was still alive for the Bulldogs. It was Ogunbowale’s overtime scoring against UConn on Friday night that helped launch her team past the Huskies and into Sunday’s title game.
In the final, Ogunbowale’s last second trey sent her team and Irish fans into a frenzy that was stymied for a few minutes as the officials ran to the monitors to check to see if there was more time left in the game.
While one second was added to the game clock, it was a moot effort as MSU had already conceded the game. In fact, many of the team’s starters had already left the floor as well as Bulldogs coach Schaefer when the officials decided there was time, albeit useless, left in the championship contest.
The Bulldogs were still recovering from another blow when Ogunbowale, who finished with 18 points, ruined their championship dreams. MSU’s double-double machine, junior center Teaira McCowan, fouled out with three seconds left. The lanky yet strong and immensely talented 6-7 post set the Final Four single-game rebounding record Friday night with 25 caroms.
McGraw finished her postgame comments not talking about her team but giving praise to McCowan.
“I just want to say McCowan is an unbelievable player. She had a fantastic game. She’s so difficult to guard. She is definitely an All-American.
McCowan finished the evening in customary fashion with 18 points plus 17 rebounds. Her teammate senior guard Roshunda Johnson was also in double figures with 21 points plus nine rebounds. MSU ends the season with a record 37 wins and just two losses.
“This is the toughest, most resilient team I have ever seen,” coach Schaefer said. “Their competitive spirit is second to none. Congratulations to Notre Dame, but I am awfully proud of my group. When you are up five with 1:40 to go in the game, it’s my job to get them home and I didn’t get them home. I will wear that maybe for the rest of my career.”
While Schaefer was being too hard on himself, McGraw wasted no time praising her opponent in her opening comments to the media postgame.
“Mississippi State was a tremendous defensive team,” she said. Seconds later, she acknowledged the Christian holy day.
“Thank you, Jesus, on Easter Sunday.”
Ogunbowale followed up quickly with “Amen. Hallelujah.”
Indeed, a good Friday of basketball followed by an Irish resurrection after 17 years.
Final Four All-Tournament Team
- Napheesa Collier (UConn)
- Teaira McCowan (Miss. St.)
- Victoria Vivians (Miss. St.)
- Jessica Shepard (Notre Dame)
- Arike Ogunbowale (Notre Dame) – Most Outstanding Player
- Notre Dame wins its second NCAA Championship, also claiming the 2001 title with a 68-66 victory over Purdue. The two Notre Dame title game victories have come by a combined five points.
- This marked the third championship for the Atlantic Coast Conference. North Carolina won the title in 1994 and Maryland earned the title in 2006.
- Muffet McGraw now has eight Final Four wins, third behind only UConn’s Geno Auriemma (22) and Tennessee’s Pat Summitt (21) on that list.
- McGraw becomes only the sixth coach with multiple NCAA titles, joining Geno Auriemma (11), Pat Summitt (8), Linda Sharp (2), Tara VanDerveer (2), and Kim Mulkey (2).
- Notre Dame executed the largest comeback in NCAA championship history, overcoming a 15-point deficit (trailing 40-25 with 6:41 left in the third quarter). The previous mark was held by Louisiana Tech, who overcame a 14-point deficit to defeat Auburn 56-54 in the 1988 title game.
- Mississippi State ends the season with a program record of 37 wins.
- The MSU seniors have 126 wins in the last four seasons, the most by a class in school history.
- Junior Teaira McCowan grabbed 17 rebounds to finish the 2018 NCAA Tournament with a record 109 rebounds. That broke the old mark of 75 held by Minnesota’s Janel McCarville, who had 75 in 5 games in the 2004 tournament. McCowan had 25 in the national semifinals vs. Louisville.
- McCowan also set the two-game Women’s Final Four record for rebounds with 42. The previous record was 37 set by Tracy Claxton of Old Dominion in 1985.
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