A year ago, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team lost a heartbreaker at the buzzer in overtime to Mississippi State in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament and UConn coach Geno Auriemma smiled.
His team had gone 36-0 that season but in many ways, they had overachieved.
Twelve months later, the Huskies lost again in overtime of the NCAA Tournament semifinals as Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale hit a contested jumper with one second left in overtime to lift the Fighting Irish to a 91-89 victory Friday night at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus and into Sunday’s NCAA championship game.
Auriemma and his Huskies were not amused one bit.
In what has become of the best rivalries in women’s college basketball, the Irish showed no fear when playing Connecticut. Ogunbowale scored 27 points while sophomore guard Jackie Young had a career-high 32 points and tied for the team-high with 11 rebounds. Jessica Shepard scored 15 points and ripped down 11 rebounds for the Fighting Irish (34-3).
“I’m so proud of this team,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “It was a dogfight. Both teams throwing punches. They made some big plays – some good plays. We made some plays back. I thought it came down to rebounding in the fourth quarter and overtime.”
Napheesa Collier led the Huskies (36-1) with 24 points while Azura Stevens came off the bench to score 19 points and pull down eight rebounds. Katie Lou Samuelson scored 16 points for Connecticut.
“You really can’t describe what goes into — what goes into getting here and trying to win a championship,” Auriemma said afterward. “It’s very, very difficult. For a long, long time, we made it look like it was easy, but it’s very, very difficult, as it’s played out the last two years.”
UConn was in the Final Four for the 11th straight year — a stunning achievement by itself. The team has won 11 NCAA national championships. Yet, in the past two seasons, there have been heartbreaking defeats that have sent the Huskies back to Storrs before the national title game.
“For us to make the plays that we made to tie the game in regulation then have a chance to win it and to tie the game in overtime, that’s what Connecticut basketball is all about,” Auriemma said. “But they made one more big play than we did tonight.”
Notre Dame led by as many as 13 points in the first quarter before the Huskies grabbed control of the game in the second quarter with runs of 13-0 and 14-0. But the Irish crawled back into the game in the third quarter with an 11-3 run of their own and it was a battle to the end.
Connecticut had to scramble just to get to overtime. The Irish led by five points, 79-74 with 21 seconds remaining after three UConn turnovers in a little more than three minutes. Notre Dame connected on five of their last seven field goals to take the five-point lead.
Collier hit a three-pointer after a nice pass from Dangerfield to cut the lead to two points, 79-77 with 15 seconds remaining. Notre Dame tried to inbound the ball but UConn’s Kia Nurse anticipated the pass, kept her arm outstretched, stole the ball on the inbounds pass and drove to the basket for a game-tying layup with 11.5 seconds remaining.
It looked like the Huskies were on their way to stealing the victory with Nurse to become a UConn legend for her timely steal.
Notre Dame turned the ball over with 3.6 seconds left when Jessica Shepard dribbled the ball off her foot. But Williams couldn’t connect on a basket in the final seconds when it bounced off the rim.
In overtime, the Irish were all over the Huskies. They outrebounded Connecticut, 8-4 and didn’t allow the Huskies an offensive rebound in the five-minute OT session.
Nurse hit a wide-open three-pointer to give Connecticut an 82-80 lead with 4:25 left in overtime but the Irish went on a 9-2 run to take an 89-84 lead with 44 seconds left in the game.
Collier scored in the lane with 38.4 seconds to cut the Irish lead to three, 89-86. After the Irish missed a pair of foul shots and Samuelson corralled the rebound, Dangerfield tied the game at 89-89 with a three-point shot with 26.5 second remaining.
Ogunbowale’s jumper over the outstretched arms of Williams was the game-winner.
“Big shot by Arike, unbelievable,” McGraw said. “She does it all the time in practice, so we weren’t that surprised. Definitely an exciting big shot.”
Not so exciting for the Huskies.
“You know, when you do something (win 11 national championships) and it seems like it’s so effortless, you do get numb and forget,” Auriemma said. “It’s difficult. It’s very, very difficult. There are no bad teams (here). There’s no bad players. You can’t luck into a national championship. You have to play great.
“You know, one or two players really make the difference at this time of the year. I made this comment before that, when your team gets to the Final Four, it’s not your talent, and it’s not your team that’s going to beat the other team. Generally, when you look back, there’s one or two players that just make unbelievable plays and just dominate the game. And going in, you never know who they’re going to be,” Auriemma said.
It was an outstanding game with 11 lead changes. The Huskies led by 11 points late in the second quarter and led by seven points, 69-62 with 5:44 remaining in the fourth quarter on a rebound that Azure Stevens put back into the basket.
But Young and the Irish wouldn’t go away.
“Jackie Young, I don’t know what to say about her. I knew she had it in her, and to get a career high in the national semifinal against Connecticut, I don’t think you can ask for a better performance than what she gave tonight,” McGraw said.
And as much as this stings the Huskies and their fans, it is so sweet and satisfying for the Irish, who have lost four players to knee (ACL) injuries this season.
“This is, I think, the second time we’ve beat them in the semifinal,” McGraw said. “That’s been our lucky charm. Can’t seem to beat them in the final. But this one, I mean, to come from behind — to have a big lead (in regulation), squander that, come from behind (to win), and with this team — I mean, this one’s really special. It’s got to be the best one.”
Notre Dame 91, Connecticut 89, OT
At Columbus, Ohio
Notre Dame (91) Jessica Shepard 7-14 1-2 15, Kathryn Westbeld 3-7 2-2 8, Marina Mabrey 3-10 0-0 7, Jackie Young 10-15 10-11 32, Arike Ogubowale 9-21 6-8 27, Kristina Nelson 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 33-7, 19-23, 91
Connecticut (89) Gabby Williams 6-12 0-0 10, Napheesa Collier 11-17 1-1 24, Crystal Dangerfield 3-11 0-0 2, Kia Nurse 4-13 0-0 10, Katie Lou Samuelson 6-12 0-0 16, Azura Stevens 8-12 3-5 19. Totals 38-77, 4-6, 89
Notre Dame (33-3) 24 10 23 22 12 — 91
Connecticut (36-1) 14 27 19 19 10 — 89
Three-point goals: Notre Dame 6-19 (Westbeld 0-2, Mabrey 1-7, Young 2-4, Ogunbowale 3-6), Connecticut 9-24 (Collier 1-1, Dangerfield 2-8, Nurse 2-7, Samuelson 4-8); A – 19,564