Notre Dame overcomes slow start, wins second national title

COLUMBUS, OH - APRIL 1: Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Muffet McGraw waves to the crowd after cutting a piece of the net to celebrate beating Mississippi in the championship game of the 2018 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Final Four at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OH - APRIL 1: Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Muffet McGraw waves to the crowd after cutting a piece of the net to celebrate beating Mississippi in the championship game of the 2018 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Final Four at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images) /

COLUMBUS,OH— Seventeen years and roughly 200 miles separate Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw’s two NCAA titles. In a season where her bench was greatly depleted by injury, Notre Dame weathered the storm and won a national title.

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It took three players to turn the tide for the Irish: Kristine Nelson, Maria Mabrey, and Arike Ogunbowale. However, at the start of the game, it was unclear if the trio would step up with enough time to give Notre Dame a fighting chance.

The Irish fell behind to Mississippi State 30-17 at the half.  Notre Dame scored only three points in the entire second period. So, what changed?

Here are three takeaways from Notre Dame’s first national championship since 2001.

Slow ’em down Defense

COLUMBUS, OH – APRIL 01: Kristina Nelson
COLUMBUS, OH – APRIL 01: Kristina Nelson /

All throughout the weekend, coaches (other than Vic Schaefer) were asked the same question, “How do you stop Teaira McCowan?” The answer was always the same, “you don’t.”

“It was a big job,” the forward Kristina Nelson told High Post Hoops Sunday. “We had to be physical and we had to keep [McCowan] out the paint and, just do whatever we could. We knew we weren’t going to completely stop her.”

McCowan— recently named the 2018 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year—posted nine points and eight rebounds in the first half for Mississippi State. Nelson picked up four fouls keeping McCowan under control.

“I thought [Nelson] did a really good job when she came in the game. We used up a lot of fouls in there, but she was able to body her a little bit,” said McGraw. “We were just fortunate that we got a big body in there to [get her to] miss.”

A physical game was expected, given Nelson’s assignment and the stakes at play. Bt the second half, Notre Dame was able to attack the rim more and get McCowan into foul trouble. The junior eventually fouled out in the fourth quarter. She disrupted a Notre Dame fast break with three seconds left in the fourth quarter.

Working through the rough patches

In addition to losing scholarship athletes to injury, Notre Dame was also forced to transition junior Marina Mabrey to point guard. At times, the lack of experience was apparent, including in the national championship game. Mabrey tied a season-high seven turnovers in the first half. Additionally, Notre Dame had difficulty engaging their post players in the offense, contributing to a dismal three-point second period.

Mabrey expressed her disappointment in a halftime interview with ESPN analyst Holly Rowe. “My only goal in the second half was to not turn it over,” she told High Post Hoops after the game. “Indeed I turned it over at a most crucial time ever. Mabrey was referring to her eight turnovers with seven seconds left in a tie game.

COLUMBUS, OH – APRIL 1: Marina Mabrey
COLUMBUS, OH – APRIL 1: Marina Mabrey /

“But, I never stopped fighting. I turned it over, I turned around and got my hand on the ball and Jackie (Young) picked it up. I was mad at myself for turning over. But then again, I made a play after that.”

Mississippi State guard Morgan William recalled the play in the post game press conference, “[The ball] got tipped and Teaira ended up passing to me.” William launched the ball forward to Victoria Vivians, but Mabrey deflected the pass. When asked if she was perhaps fouled, she remarked, “No whistle, so it wasn’t a foul.”

Senior guard Morgan William will not get to redeem that moment in her college career, but perhaps Mabrey will. “I’m still learning how to be a point guard … I don’t do well with pressure. So that’s something I’ll be working on this [off]season and best believe I’ll be ready for pressure next year.”

Another buzzer beater

COLUMBUS, OH – APRIL 01: Arike Ogunbowale
COLUMBUS, OH – APRIL 01: Arike Ogunbowale /

Nelson’s defense and Mabrey’s struggles, in their own way, set-up a fairytale arc for Arike Ogunbowale. She too struggled early in the game. Mississippi State held her to a shocking two points in the first half.  Her anemic scoreline was not for lack of trying. She went 1-for-10 from the floor.

Yet, the #MambaMentality cannot be stopped! Ogunbowale was tasked to finish the job by one of the greatest to ever play the game. Kobe Bryant saluted the Notre Dame star after defeating UConn on Friday.  Ogunbowale gushed over the tweet, replying her life was complete. Bryant responded with the following tweet:

She did just that, going 5-11 in the second half including another game-winning shot with one-tenth of a second left on the clock.

Despite her early struggles, Ogunbowale never thought to stop shooting, ever. “I was missing a lot of bunnies (inside shots) with the layups. It was a little frustrating, but I know I had to keep shooting, to keep going to the basket.”

As the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament replaced her earrings in the locker room, her phone—like most of the others in the locker room—was buzzing nonstop. We asked her about Kobe’s latest tweet, Ogunbowale smiled and responded, “Yeah, I saw Kobe tweeted me again. It’s crazy!”

She went on to say the confidence, the swagger, the #MambaMentality she displayed was instilled by her teammates. “For them to have so much confidence in me, that’s amazing!”

Before leaving Columbus, Ogunbowale caught up with fellow buzzer-beating, winning-shot taking hooper Charlotte Smith. The current head coach at Elon University brought home the championship for the 1994 North Carolina Tar Heels in Richmond, VA.

Final Thought

With the win, Muffet McGraw becomes one of six head coaches to win multiple national titles. She joins the likes of Pat Summitt (Tennessee), Kim Mulkey (Baylor), Linda Sharp (Southern California), Tara Vanderveer (Stanford), and —lone male coach on the list—Geno Auriemma (Connecticut).

Despite being associated with the best in the game, McGraw remains humble, “You know I’ve got a long way to go to get to Pat and Geno. And I think that life is all about not comparing yourself to other people and just doing what you do and enjoying the journey.”

When asked if winning will help her recruit, McGraw answered in the affirmative. She added, “But, you know, I think we’ve been to so many Final Fours (seven, including 2018) that I think  we can talk to them about being the one that takes us to the next level.”

McGraw also said there are no guarantees. One only need look at the Notre Dame 2017-18 injuries for proof. Only Summitt (18), Vanderveer (12), and Auriemma (18) have achieved double-digit Final Four appearances.

Greatness takes time and a lot of hard work. Yet, one cannot help but wonder if Notre Dame can turn some Irish luck on Easter Sunday into a building block for the future.