When it had all ended, Notre Dame a national champion in the most improbable fashion, the shock radiated outward from the court and into both locker rooms, knocking winner and runner-up alike almost physically backwards.
For the Irish, it felt inconceivable that this team could lose four significant players to ACL tears, yet somehow push a roster of six players past a gauntlet that included Oregon, Connecticut, and Mississippi State—three of the top five teams in the country—for the program's second national title.
What was there to say?
“I'm just so speechless at this point,” Notre Dame's coach, Muffet McGraw, said at the podium after the 61-58 victory over Mississippi State. “To see this team come back from yet another huge deficit, to see Arike make an incredible shot, to see the resilience of a team that never gave up.”
Arike Ogunbowale will be rightfully remembered as an absolute legend, not only hitting the buzzer-beater to dispatch with Geno Auriemma's vaunted Connecticut team, but then capping the season in a cinematic shot for the ages, falling out of bounds as her shot arched above the strong defense of Victoria Vivians, and dropped through the rim as time expired once more.
No one knew quite what to say, though McGraw probably captured the Fighting Irish outlook best: “Thank you, Jesus, on Easter Sunday,” she declared, to laughter in the postgame presser, and Ogunbowale echoed her immediately: “Amen! Hallelujah!”
Ogunbowale's heroics were required, though, because Mississippi State looked in control for most of the game and seemed destined to finish what they started last year. Teaira McCowan, a junior who plans to return, loomed as the single biggest reason the Bulldogs had that championship within reach. She sat silently, deep in her locker, her usually animated expression utterly unchanging, tears down her face she hadn't even bothered to wipe away.
She played another defining game in a tournament that showed a national audience something new, and bigger, and deadlier has arrived in the paint for women's basketball. McCowan scored 18 points and grabbed 17 rebounds—the latter pushing her record haul for the tournament to 109.
But on a night when the McCowan-centered Mississippi State defense did everything it wanted to slow down the Notre Dame attack, holding a team that came in averaging 85.3 points per game to a paltry 61, it hadn't been quite enough to win.
“I mean, to me, you took their biggest weapons and held them to 6 for 21 and 2 for 7,” Bulldogs head coach Vic Schaefer told reporters after the game, referring to Ogunbowale and Jackie Young. For reference, they scored 27 and 32, respectively, against Connecticut on Friday night. “You know, the two kids that we're really concerned about that had such great nights the other night, [Marina] Mabrey goes 3 for 9 with nine turnovers. I don't know what else we could have done.”
On Friday, Notre Dame put up 91 points on their way to beating Connecticut. In the second quarter against Mississippi State last night? Three points. At the half, the Bulldogs led, 30-17, and were 20 minutes from a championship.
But a season defined by comebacks—from 23 down to beat Tennessee earlier this year, down six at the half to Oregon in the Elite Eight, and 11 to Connecticut on Friday night—finished with one more. The Fighting Irish largely abandoned their offense and simply attacked the basket, watching the fouls pile up on the most critical Bulldogs while sinking free throws that cut the lead from 40-25 down to 41-41.
"As soon as she put the shot up, I knew it was going in.”
Then in the fourth quarter, championship players on both ends simply made plays. It looked as if McCowan might escape the harness of Kristina Nelson's vital defense against her off the bench when Nelson picked up foul number four and went to the bench. McCowan followed with scores on consecutive possessions. McGraw realized she had no choice, and sent Nelson back out, simply playing for time, but Nelson never did pick up her fifth.
Those McCowan baskets, followed by Ro Johnson's first three of the game put the Bulldogs up, 58-53, with 1:58 to go, and they followed with an excellent defensive possession that forced Jessica Shepard to pass the ball out to Mabrey, who like her teammates hadn't made a three all night.
“We weren't even looking for a three,” Mabrey said after the game. “We were looking for Jess inside, and my player left. I think she trapped down or something. Jess just kicked it to me, and I was like, okay, Marina, it's time. You really need to make this. So I got lucky.”
Briefly before the moment we'll be watching forever, pandemonium: the Bulldogs got another strong defensive possession as the clock dropped below 10 seconds left, and it was McCowan, in fact, who jumped into a passing lane and stole the ball, sent it William's way, with Victoria Vivians up ahead and the game-winning play taking shape.
To prevent this, Mabrey tried to do the smart thing and mauled William. Except, the refs did not call it, and in a mad scramble Jackie Young picked up the loose ball. McCowan then saw the same thing Mabrey had moments before, but in mirror image, and committed a foul of her own. This one, the refs called. McCowan's night was over. And the Irish had one more play.
The plan was to go to Shepard. But Mississippi State denied the clean look.
“I knew, if I threw it, it would have possibly been a turnover,” Young said. “So I talked to Arike before, and I was like, if the matchup doesn't look right or if Jess isn't in the position that we're looking for, then come back to the ball. And I just made sure that Arike was literally coming to the ball before I passed it to her. We had confidence in her. As soon as she put the shot up, I knew it was going in.”
The trophy made its way around the Notre Dame locker room, Muffet McGraw holding court near her white board with reporters, players, and families taking selfies. Her husband of 40 years, Matt, requested one with Shepard. The Notre Dame photographer obliged. As they handed the trophy off, Shepard and Matt McGraw turned to each other, smiling, and shrugged at the same time.
What was there to say?