Arike Ogunbowale and Megan Gustafson brought Notre Dame and Iowa fans out in droves to Chicago’s Wintrust Arena
CHICAGO — On a night that started with local icon Mike Ditka tossing up the honorary jump ball and Miguel Cervantes of Chicago’s production of Hamilton singing the National Anthem, a couple of Dallas Wings rookies had already won over much of the crowd.
Neither Arike Ogunbowale nor Megan Gustafson played in Chicago during their college careers, but that didn’t stop fans of relatively nearby schools where they left impressive, deeply meaningful legacies, Notre Dame and Iowa, from nearly turning the Chicago Sky’s home arena into a neutral site on Sunday.
The Wings’ struggles in a season of transition continued, as the hosting Sky snapped a four-game losing streak with a 78-66 win. That was of little consequence for the contingents of Fighting Irish green and Hawkeye yellow shirts in the crowd, though.
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Notre Dame’s campus is about 2 hours southeast of the city, and Iowa’s campus is about 3.5 hours directly west. It’s no secret that both schools are well-represented in the area, and many who came to watch their school’s former stars may likely have been from Chicagoland. However, many were not.
Judy Wise and Lucy Rupe of Goshen, Indiana, donning sparkly green fedoras you could spot from across the arena, were among those who traveled a good distance to see their school’s former star play. They sat in the front row of “three buses full” of Notre Dame fans in the upper deck, who all wore matching T-shirts and cheered on the Wings from start to finish.
Ogunbowale, who won ACC Athlete of the Year and led Notre Dame to the 2018 national championship with two thrilling Final Four buzzer beaters, drained a buzzer beating 3-pointer in the first quarter for her first basket of the game, sending the Irish faithful into hysterics. It was far from her last as part of a 22-point night, during which she led all scorers and drew frequent roars from the crowd.
“[When we saw that buzzer beater], we thought ‘typical,” Wise said. “We’re used to seeing that from her. She holds about every record she’s eligible to get. It’s pretty neat, you feel like that’s what she worked so hard for. And they work hard if they play at Notre Dame.”
“My school does well with planning bus trips to see alumni, so I was happy to see them in the stands,” Ogunbowale, who said she noticed her supporting section and had anticipated them being there, said. “We have a tight bond. Irish fans are big supporters and they’ll follow us, so it’s definitely special for them to come out.”
Though Gustafson’s moment in the sun came later, her cheering section gave her a loud, long ovation when she first entered the game with 1:49 left in the first half. After watching her favorite player ride the bench the entire game, Iowa fan Lisa Cain raised her hands to the sky in reverence and yelled “thank you!”
Cain, who sat in the first row at center court, drove all the way from Iowa City for her first ever WNBA game. She said Iowa’s love and support for Gustafson, who helped the Hawkeyes reach the Elite Eight this past season, and then had her number retired at a surprise ceremony, is unmatched. According to Cain, about 10 minutes after the two-time Big Ten player of the year was drafted in April, local sports outlets were already putting together lists of her games and when fans could see her.
“I’m 51 and I’ve never seen an athlete for Iowa, or the Big Ten for that matter, that’s made an impact as much as Megan,” Cain said. “Not just accomplishments, obviously with all of the awards, but the person she is and the exposure she’s brought to Iowa.”
Unfortunately for Gustafson, her moment in the sun was truly just that; she only saw the floor during those final two minutes of the half. Nonetheless, she said she was thankful for the support of the Hawkeyes fans who traveled to see her, and that hearing them cheer when she entered the game was a “cool moment.”
“It was pretty crazy,” she said. “It feels like they’ve watched me grow up, just first becoming a Hawk and now with the Dallas Wings. They’ve been through all of my time at Iowa and they’ve seen me grow and figure out what it means to be a Hawk. So I’m just thankful, and I’ll continue to wear that Hawkeye pride well.”
The Wings return to Chicago one more time this year, a fact Cain, Wise and Rupe were all keen to point out. So while it’s quite possible that neither player will have to pay for a meal in their alma mater’s city again, maybe these two college legends ought to try their luck around the Windy City, too.
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