Getting to the Final Four isn’t easy, and the Irish were reminded of that this weekend. In dramatic fashion, they defeated 4-seed Texas A&M in the Sweet Sixteen and 2-seed Stanford in the Elite Eight to earn the team’s seventh Final Four spot in nine seasons. They will face UConn on Friday in a rematch of both  December’s game and last year’s Final Four.

Sweet Sixteen: 1 ND vs. 4 Texas A&M

Just like last year in the Sweet 16, the Irish faced Texas A&M on Saturday. As expected, Aggies superstar sophomore Chennedy Carter gave the Irish all they could handle. The Irish got off to a slow start, going 1 for 6 in the opening minutes to fall behind 7-4. A&M’s Carter picked up two fouls in that same stretch, but was able to keep from getting in any real foul trouble until the closing minutes of the game. As the Irish settled in, they began to trade baskets and the lead with the Aggies. The first quarter featured a whopping 11 lead changes with ND holding a 21-18 edge at the end of the quarter. Jessica Shepard gave a strong performance in the second quarter, finishing under the basket and making some longer shots in this game too. While the Irish held their slight lead for most of the quarter, the game stayed close as the Irish tried to find any kind of an answer for Chennedy Carter. By halftime, the score was tied at 42. The Irish were outscored in the paint 30-26 in the first half, after using their dominance in the paint to win games all postseason.

Showing increased energy and confidence, ND opened the third quarter on an 8-0 run before Carter scored to jump start the Aggies. The Irish still had no success trying to defend her as their lead shrank back to two at 52-50. ND held onto the slight edge as the teams battled back and forth through the rest of the quarter. They led 65-52 heading into the fourth.

The Aggies quickly tied the game at 65 as the fourth quarter began, and the Irish offense started to get a little sloppy. It certainly appeared that this game was going to come down to the wire, and the fact that nothing they tried against Carter was working made the prospect pretty nerve-wracking. However, not to be denied another trip to the Final Four in her senior year, Arike Ogunbowale started to take over the game. With 6:45 remaining, she hit a three-pointer. On the other end of the court, she secured a steal, then took it back down to score again. Suddenly, the Irish lead was back to 5 at 74-69. Minutes later, Ogunbowale drew Carter’s fourth foul and completed the 3-point play to give the Irish an eight point lead at 79-71. With 54 seconds remaining in the game, another score from Ogunbowale stretched the lead to nine. In her jubilation, Ogunbowale got a little too enthusiastic for the officials’ liking as she told an A&M player about her success, and she was called for the technical foul. The Aggies made both free throws and scored on the ensuing possession to close the gap to five, but it was too little too late. The Aggies started fouling and the Irish converted the free throws, closing out the win with a final score of 87-80.

They did bounce back from the halftime deficit to close with a ten-point edge in the paint. Ogunbowale led the scoring with 34 points. Shepard added a solid double-double with 24 points and 14 rebounds, Young added 14 points, and Turner added 12. Marina Mabrey struggled to score once again, but still contributed to the game with 6 rebounds and 6 assists. The Irish gave up 35 points to Chennedy Carter. Carter is only a sophomore, so it’s going to be fun to watch her the next two years (as long as she isn’t playing against Notre Dame, preferably ever again).

Elite Eight: 1 ND vs. 2 Stanford

Saturday’s win earned the Irish a regional final matchup against Stanford. Notre Dame has been to the Final Four in seven of the nine last seasons. Both times they missed the trip, it was Stanford that took them down. That was certainly in the back of my mind going into this game, and it felt for a while like this was going to be another one of those years.

The game took place on the anniversary of last year’s thrilling title game, and things got off to an encouraging start as Ogunbowale opened the scoring with a three. It was not a sign of things to come. Both the Irish and the Cardinals were incredibly cold shooting. At first it seemed like just the nerves and the process of settling in as the stakes get higher in the Elite Eight, but then it went on… and on… and on. Notre Dame took a timeout with 3:03 to go in the first quarter, trailing 8-7. At that point, they had connected on 3/15 shots and Stanford on 4/15. The bad shooting continued after the timeout, joined by some bad passes and overall sloppy offense. Stanford led 13-11 after the first quarter. An 11-point first quarter was an unfamiliar feeling from a team that has averaged 23.5 points in opening quarters this year. The one bright spot in the quarter came early on when the Irish reached another milestone: the five starters now combine for over 10,000 career points, a feat no other starting five has ever accomplished in college basketball.

The shooting struggles continued in the second quarter. The Irish were struggling in the paint and missing good shots under the basket. Stanford wasn’t shooting well either and also struggled with turnovers. A crazy three from Ogunbowale tied the game at 20 with 4:36 to go in the half, but it felt like they should be losing big at that point. Perhaps because of the frustration of the early shooting troubles, ND wasn’t running the offense we’re used to seeing from them. Every possession seemed to be just one person making a desperate shot rather than looking for an open teammate. Nobody was in position to rebound on those missed shots, so there were few second chances available. Stanford settled in a little and was able to grow a 33-26 lead at halftime.

Things got closer as the third quarter progressed. An Irish run cut the lead to 40-39 and Stanford couldn’t pull away again. Ogunbowale picked up her third foul with over three and a half minutes remaining in the quarter and had to go to the bench. However, Abby Prohaska came into the game and had her best performance of the season. The stat sheet shows her with 4 points, 3 rebounds, and an assist, but it doesn’t do justice to her involvement in the game. She provided good defense and her 4 points came at really clutch moments. She contributed 11 good minutes with only one foul, after struggling with foul trouble in some of her prior appearances this year. The Irish finally settled in, collecting back to back baskets from Brianna Turner followed by a Jackie Young layup to take a six point lead. This turned into an 11-2 run to close the quarter with a 52-46 lead.

All of a sudden, everything was clicking for Notre Dame. There was some back and forth play early in the quarter, but then the Irish were able to pull away and grow the lead to 14. After scoring just 10 points in the paint in the first half, the Irish dominated with 40 in the second half (compared to Stanford’s 12). The starters exited the game with 34 seconds remaining, and Notre Dame closed the game with an 84-68 victory (and a little revenge for those past Stanford losses). Young finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds, Ogunbowale added 21, Turner added 14 points and 3 blocks, and Shepard contributed 11 points and 14 rebounds. Mabrey scored seven points to (hopefully) begin breaking out of her scoring slump and added 4 rebounds and 6 assists.

Coming Up

Friday 4/5, 9:00pm; ESPN2 – 1 ND vs 2 UConn

If they win: Sunday 4/7, 6:00pm; ESPN – National Championship Game vs. 1 Baylor/2 Oregon

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

Here we go again. Another battle against the Huskies awaits the Irish in Tampa. These are two very good teams, who know each other well. UConn came out on top when they played in December, but both teams have improved significantly since then. The Huskies will want to get revenge for their heartbreaking loss to the Irish in last year’s Final Four, plus there is some bitterness associated with their 2-seed. It’s the first time since 2006 the Huskies aren’t a 1-seed in the Tournament and they want to prove that they should have been. I’m not making any predictions for this game. It’s a great rivalry, and you never quite know what to expect when these two teams face off.

A win in the Final Four would give the Irish a matchup with either overall 1-seed Baylor, who has been steamrolling their opponents throughout the tournament, or 2-seed Oregon, who the Irish knocked out of the tournament in last year’s Elite Eight. Either way, they’re in for a battle.

Just a few short days after the season ends, you can tune in to the WNBA Draft to see where the starters will be playing this summer. Ogunbowale, Shepard, Turner, and Mabrey are all expected to be drafted, and if she chooses to declare early, so is Young. It should be a pretty impressive night for the Irish, who will join current WNBA players and ND alums Skylar Diggins-Smith, Devereaux Peters, Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa, Jewell Loyd, and Lindsay Allen. I’m putting in my plug here: the WNBA is really fun to watch and you should give it a try if you haven’t. You’ll see a lot of familiar faces.