In a game that took Irish fans on quite the emotional roller coaster, the Irish couldn’t quite pull off a win against Baylor in the National Championship game. The second half magic they’ve relied on in the Tournament (both this season and last) finally ran out despite an impressive comeback effort in the fourth quarter.

Game Recap: 1 ND vs. 1 Baylor

It didn’t take long for Irish fans to get nervous in this one. Marina Mabrey connected from beyond the arc to give the Irish an early 3-2 lead, but that was the last highlight for quite a while. The offensive struggles that plagued the Irish in the first halves of their Elite Eight and Final Four games continued, with some questionable shot selections. This was exacerbated by the threat of Baylor’s two bigs, Lauren Cox and Kalani Brown, as the Irish hesitated early to even try to score in the paint. After Mabrey’s three the Irish missed their next 11 shots, connecting only on a pair of Jackie Young free throws, as Baylor took a 15-5 lead with 5:13 remaining in the quarter. The Irish were able to briefly cut the lead to five, but Baylor stretched it back out and finished the quarter with a steal and layup at the buzzer to take the 25-14 lead.

Shots weren’t falling for the Irish in the second quarter either. Meanwhile, the defense struggled against Baylor’s speed and size and the Lady Bears lead kept growing. Even when ND had good defensive possessions and made Baylor take tough shots, those were falling for them too. By 5:20 remaining in the half the Irish trailed 33-20. Arike Ogunbowale did her best to get them back in the game, scoring the next five points to cut it to an eight point deficit, but Baylor quickly stretched it back out to 12. The Irish weren’t able to string together defensive stops to cut into the lead, and that also prevented them from running their much-praised and usually successful transition offense. At halftime, Baylor led 43-31 after outscoring the Irish in the paint 30-8. The Irish shot just 27.5% in the first half while Baylor shot 62.5%.

The third quarter started with a little bit of hope for Irish fans. These players are no strangers to halftime deficits, and even trailed by 9 in the fourth quarter of the Final Four, but there was little in the first half that encouraged any optimism. The first couple of minutes of the quarter featured some back and forth play. At the 6:10 mark, Ogunbowale hit a three to cut the lead to 51-42 and minutes later a shot from Brianna Turner cut it to seven at 53-46. The offense was looking stronger – Baylor was still making everything difficult, but the shots were starting to fall. However, the defense still struggled to get any stops. Turner picked up her third foul and went to the bench with 4:01 remaining, and the Baylor lead inched back out to 14. At this point, it felt like that little run to cut it to seven was probably as close as the game was going to get. Things changed in agonizing fashion with 1:22 remaining in the quarter when Baylor’s Lauren Cox went down with what seemed to be a serious knee injury. Irish fans are certainly familiar with that experience, and can sympathize with Baylor. Play resumed and Ogunbowale hit one of her signature buzzer beaters from three to end the third quarter down 66-55.

Drawing on the late game magic they’ve relied on in the past, the Irish started a run in the first 20 seconds of the final quarter. Mabrey was fouled shooting a three and connected on all three free throws. The deficit was eight. Ogunbowale connected on a jumper and was fouled. She made the ensuring free throw and the deficit was five. Jessica Shepard scored and the deficit was three. All of a sudden the Irish were stringing together stops on defense and making things happen on offense. Baylor grew their lead back to seven, but then Mabrey confirmed that her scoring slump had ended. In a span of just over two minutes, interrupted only by another score from Shepard, Mabrey hit three three-pointers to tie the game at 74 with 5:18 remaining. The rest of the quarter was a close back and forth battle, tied at 80 with 16 seconds remaining. Then Chloe Jackson got by the Notre Dame defense and scored to take the 82-80 lead with 3.9 seconds remaining.

Unfortunately, after an epic comeback to come this close, the magic ran out a few seconds too early. Ogunbowale was fouled on her shot attempt with 1.9 seconds to go. She missed the first free throw and would have to miss the second to give Notre Dame a chance to rebound and put up a game-tying shot. However, the second free throw went in. Baylor led 82-81. The Irish fouled them on the inbound with 0.3 seconds remaining and again on the next inbound, but the clock ran out. Baylor won their third national title by one point. In the last 4:28 of the game, the Irish connected on six of eight free throws to keep the game close, but did not make a single field goal.

Bigger Picture and Reflections

Obviously, this isn’t the outcome any of us would have chosen. To come so close to winning back-to-back titles, fighting all the way back to the Championship Game and then clawing their way back into this game in the fourth quarter, of course it hurts to come up one point short. It hurts that it was the last chance we’ll have to see Mabrey, Ogunbowale, Shepard, and Turner play in Irish uniforms (and maybe Young – her decision has to be made by the end of today and I’ll update in the comments when we learn it). It hurts that after their record-shattering careers, this is the way they have to go out. It would be easy to let that be the overwhelming feeling at this point, but that wouldn’t be fair.

It wouldn’t be fair to focus on that last trip to the free throw line for Arike Ogunbowale (though I’m sure she’s having trouble not doing just that). First of all, any number of plays over the course of 40 minutes could have made up that one-point difference. More importantly, it wouldn’t be fair to dwell on one missed free throw when she scored 31 points last night – the second-most ever in the championship game and the most in a loss. When in the tournament this year she scored 155 points – the fourth most ever. When during her career in an Irish uniform, she scored 2,626 points – the most of anyone in program history. When a handful of those points sent them to last year’s title game and then clinched the program’s second national title. Ogunbowale never left anything on the court, and what she gave to this program won’t be forgotten any time soon.

It wouldn’t be fair to the other seniors to focus only on those last few seconds either. It wouldn’t be fair to Marina Mabrey, who broke out of a scoring slump at the most important moment to score 21 points including 4-8 from three. She holds the program record for made three-pointers, and without her willingness to take on the unfamiliar point guard role last season they would never have won that title. It wouldn’t be fair to Jessica Shepard, who had a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds last night. She came into an unfamiliar program after transferring from Nebraska, stepped right into a key role on the team, and helped propel them to the title last year. It wouldn’t be fair to Brianna Turner who also had a double-double last night with 12 points and 12 rebounds, and holds the program records for rebounding and blocked shots. She worked hard to rehab her knee injury last year and came back better than ever this year. Without her defense, they wouldn’t have been back in this game.

It wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the team either – to Jackie Young, who had four points, nine rebounds, and six assists last night. She had two triple-doubles this year and contributed to this team in every single area without ever seeming to mind that she didn’t get as much of the glory. It wouldn’t be fair to the players who came off the bench, who played hard in the minutes they saw the floor and played hard in practice all year to make sure this team was in position to succeed.

So, though it may take a while for the sting to wear off, I hope when we think back on the several months that made up this season we think about much more than the last few seconds. It has been such a joy to watch these five starters play together – with more than 10,000 combined career points, and multiple broken records, we aren’t likely to see such an impressive group together again. At the moment, it doesn’t feel like the pieces are in place to make another run like this next year – outside of the possibility of Young’s return, next year’s team will be very young (no pun intended) and inexperienced. While I would never doubt the ability of Muffet McGraw and her coaching staff to bring out the best in their players, I think there will be some bumps in the road next year. I’m going to worry about that later though – for today, I’m just going to be glad we had this run.

Coming Up

Wednesday 4/10, 7:00pm; ESPN2 (1st round) and ESPNU (2nd and 3rd rounds): WNBA Draft

Watch the Draft on Wednesday to see where Ogunbowale, Shepard, Turner, and Mabrey (and Young?) could end up this summer. The regular season for the WNBA tips off on May 24th, so it won’t be long before we see them back out on the court alongside some other former Irish standouts.