They missed out on a trip to the Final Four the last two years. They dealt with a seemingly endless parade of injuries this season. They got blown out by Louisville during the ACC season. They lost the ACC Tournament for the first time since joining the conference. Many experts predicted they wouldn’t make it out of their region in this tournament. And now, the Irish have defeated overall #1 seed and championship favorite UConn in the Final Four. As I said earlier this week, you can never count this team out.
What Just Happened?
I assume that’s what the Huskies are also asking themselves in the locker room right now. The Irish got off to a strong start tonight, running the offense smoothly and getting in UConn’s way on defense. Forcing turnovers and hitting shots, the Irish jumped out to a 15-6 lead early. The Huskies started to cut back into the lead, but the Irish had their number in the first quarter. Jackie Young, who had an exceptional game, hit a 3 late in the quarter to give the Irish a 24-11 lead. At the buzzer, UConn’s Katie Lou Samuelson connected on a 3 to cut the Irish lead to 10 at 24-14.
The second quarter was a complete turnaround. The Irish went ice cold from the floor, while UConn collected offensive rebounds and took advantage of Irish turnovers to tie the game at 24. ND really struggled with UConn’s Azura Stevens in the game, as she prevented them from scoring in the paint and made the Huskies tougher to defend. They surged right past the Irish to take a 9-point lead at 41-32. Arike Ogunbowale scored to cut the UConn lead to 41-34 before halftime, ending a second quarter that UConn won 27-10. The rebounding margin explained the Irish struggles, as they were outrebounded 24-15 in the half.
Things settled down for the Irish in the third quarter as they closed the gap to 5, then used a pair of Ogunbowale free throws to come within 3. The Irish were still struggling to get the ball inside to Shepard, with a few mistakes lobbing it right past her or right into a defender’s hands. Young’s solid play continued on both ends of the floor. Marina Mabrey, who the Huskies were largely able to prevent from scoring this game, evaded them to hit the 3 that gave the Irish back the lead at 54-53. At this point the teams started trading baskets and keeping it close, though UConn held the 60-57 lead at the end of the quarter.
The Irish started the fourth quarter with some mistakes on offense, and allowed UConn to go on a small run to stretch the lead back to 67-59. They still struggled to rebound, but an Ogunbowale 3 and a basket and free throw from Young cut the UConn lead to 69-67 with 4:54 remaining in the game. Another Ogunbowale jumper gave the Irish the lead again at 73-72. The teams traded the lead as the minutes wound down. With a series of dramatic plays, the Irish took a 3-point lead at 77-74. They followed this up with a great defensive possession to force a UConn turnover with 21.3 seconds remaining. UConn had to start fouling and Ogunbowale made the pair for a 5-point lead. However, the Irish gave up a 3 to UConn after a timeout to make it a 2-point game. ND used their last timeout, then had the inbound pass stolen by Kia Nurse, who scored to tie the game at 79. ND turned the ball over, giving UConn the ball with 3.6 seconds left, but the Huskies couldn’t get the last shot to fall so the game headed to overtime tied at 79. At this point, it seemed like the Irish may have blown their chance.
Overtime started out with back and forth play, but the Irish were able to open up a lead with their free-throw shooting. Ogunbowale made a pair of free throws and Young made a trio as the Irish took an 89-84 lead with 43.4 seconds remaining. It felt like the end of regulation all over again, as UConn scored to bring the game within 3 and then fouled Ogunbowale. However, this time, Ogunbowale missed both free throws and UConn’s Crystal Dangerfield responded with a three to tie the game again at 89. With 14.6 seconds remaining, ND took a timeout. This time around they were able to successfully inbound the ball, and with the game on the line, Ogunbowale swished the long jumper for a 91-89 lead. UConn got the ball with a second on the clock and couldn’t get off a miracle shot so that stands as the final score.
A Few Fun Stats
Jackie Young came to play tonight. What an incredible performance from her, with a career high 32 points and 11 rebounds. It seemed like she was always ready with the clutch play, even during the second quarter when the game started to slip away.
Notre Dame’s free throw shooting was a huge positive in this game. They connected on 19 of 23 shots, with all four misses coming late in the game.
Arike Ogunbowale collected 27 points tonight, while Jessica Shepard picked up another double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
ND’s late improvement rebounding made the final margin much closer than it felt – UConn did outrebound the Irish, but only 41-38.
There is so much fight in this team. It would have been easy to give up when things weren’t going their way in the second quarter. It would have been really easy to fall apart in overtime after giving up the lead in the closing seconds of regulation. But they never looked panicked – in fact, they almost never even looked worried. I’m so impressed with how far they have come, and with how well the coaches and the players have adapted to the various challenges they have faced this season.
The Irish will face Mississippi State in the title game on Sunday, who won their own overtime battle against Louisville earlier tonight. The Bulldogs were the giant-killers last year, ending UConn’s 111-game win streak in the Final Four. They weren’t able to close out the feat with a win in the championship game then, so they’ll be looking for redemption this year. They are a talented team, and it will be a tough game, but for tonight I’m just going to enjoy the moment.