There were plenty of opportunities throughout the 2017-2018 season where Notre Dame could’ve thrown in the towel. They encountered wave after wave of adversity; nobody would have blamed them.
The Irish could have packed it in before the season even began when All-American forward Brianna Turner tore her ACL in last year’s NCAA Tournament. It could’ve been over in October when senior guard Mychael Johnson blew out her knee in practice, or when freshman center Mikayla Vaughn also tore her ACL in November. When grad transfer Lili Thompson tore the same ligament in January to drop Notre Dame to seven scholarship players, it would have been easy to believe this just wasn’t going to be their year.
Instead, the Fighting Irish lived up to their name and fought through the misfortune to claim a share of the ACC regular-season title and earn a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“We didn’t really talk about it a lot,” head coach Muffet McGraw said before the Final Four. “Just figured out how we’re going to move on. Always talked about what we have and what we can do rather than what we lost.”
As it turned out, Notre Dame still had enough to get to the Final Four but faced arch-rival UConn in the semifinal, the undefeated No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.
Despite a fast start, the Irish lost their grip on the game in the second quarter and let the Huskies make one of their signature runs, coming from 13 down to take an 11-point lead at the half. From the outside, the Huskies seemed poised to pull away.
Instead of letting the Huskies take the game, Notre Dame went to work, slowly chiseling away at the lead. They needed an extra five minutes of overtime, where Arike Ogunbowale put the Irish into the title game with a last-second shot.
“We’ve been in this position a lot when we were down by a big margin,” Ogunbowale said after the UConn win. “I guess it really helped for this game because we were used to it. We’ve had to overcome large deficits before, so we didn’t get down on ourselves.”
But the national semifinal was easy compared to what Notre Dame faced in the final against Mississippi State. Despite a strong first quarter, the Irish went into the half trailing by 13 after scoring just three points in the second period — the lowest ever in a national title game.
In the second half, the deficit grew to 15 points. No team had ever made that large a comeback in a championship game. Once more, Notre Dame could’ve accepted its fate. Mississippi State seemed like a team of destiny after coming up short last season. The Irish could’ve succumbed to the UConn curse. They could’ve seen Ogunbowale’s 1-for-10 shooting line and realized it wasn’t their night.
Notre Dame refused.
Like the game before, the Irish slowly started making their way back. The gap closed as Notre Dame scored 10 straight points to end the quarter to get within one. It took them just 13 seconds to re-take the lead for the first time since the first quarter.
“They stopped trying to run any offense, they just put their heads down and drove to the rim,” Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer said after the game.
The two teams fought and battled, trading the lead back and forth throughout the final ten minutes. However, once again, things looked dire for the Irish in the final minutes as Mississippi State took a five-point lead with just under two minutes to go. Notre Dame was running out of time.
But Marina Mabrey brought them within two with the team’s first three-pointer of the night. One stop later, Jackie Young tied it with 45 seconds to go. And then all hell broke loose.
With three seconds left and the game tied, Notre Dame had an inbound play right in front of its bench. Shepard, the main target of the play, was double-covered. Instead, Young found Ogunbowale, who drove towards the baseline, threw up an off-balanced look and sank the biggest shot in program history to seal the title for the Irish.
“When I saw it travel a little bit, I thought (the shot was going in),” Ogunbowale said. “But that last play, there was just a lot going on. I can’t even describe it.”
It was yet another game-winning shot by Ogunbowale to cap yet another incredible comeback for Notre Dame.
“‘What though the odds,’ part of our fight song,” McGraw said. “The fighting spirit of Notre Dame is just amazing. Relentless, competitive, they have a swagger, they believe in themselves with the confidence that starts with Arike and Marina and just filters down through the team.”
Because of that relentless, competitive swagger, they’re champions.