Second-half surge pushes Notre Dame past Stanford and into Women’s Final Four

Second-half surge pushes Notre Dame past Stanford and into Women’s Final Four

CHICAGO — Notre Dame had no first-team All-Americans when the list was announced Monday, hours before they took the court for an Elite Eight contest against Stanford in the women’s NCAA tournament. It wasn’t exactly a snub. How do you pick one when the defending national champions have so many weapons?

When shot after shot clanked off the rim on Monday night, and Arike Ogumbowale was in foul trouble, Jackie Young came alive, erasing a nine-point second-half deficit to lead the Fighting Irish to an 84-68 victory before an electric green-clad crowd at Wintrust Arena.

Notre Dame is going to the Final Four again, and will meet UConn on Friday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2) in Tampa, Florida. It’s a rematch of last year’s national semifinal, when the Irish upset the Huskies 91-89 in overtime on Ogumbowale’s buzzer-beating shot. This year’s run to the Final Four, coach Muffet McGraw said, was more stressful because of the pressure for a group loaded with seniors to get back.

They made history on Monday night, though it became barely a footnote. Notre Dame’s starting five of Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard, Brianna Turner, Marina Mabrey and Young became the first group in NCAA history — men or women — to score 10,000 points. They now have 10,068.

“I mean, it’s a milestone, and certainly the first time it’s been done,” McGraw said. “It’s pretty amazing, but it really doesn’t mean anything, except they get a lot of shots.”

The Fighting Irish put up so many shots this season that they came into the Chicago regional averaging an NCAA-best 89.2 points a game. They struggled to reach double-digits by the end of the first quarter.

How bad was it? They missed layups. They missed from beyond the 3-point arc. Zero of their first 18 contested field-goal attempts went in. In a scene that was emblematic of the first 20 minutes, Notre Dame got the ball with four seconds left in the first half, and Ogunbowale drove down the court and dished a perfect pass to Jessica Shepard.

Shepard missed the layup, and Notre Dame was down 33-26 as the buzzer sounded.

“We just talked about [how] we have 20 more minutes to get back to the Final Four,” Ogunbowale said, “and a lot of the mistakes and reasons that we were down were us. We weren’t really holding good defense, we weren’t getting rebounds. So if we could fix that without even the shots falling … we knew the shots were going to be able to fall the second half, because the first half was rough.”

Slumps eventually turn. Stanford guard Kiana Williams knew that. On Saturday night against Missouri State, she missed all 11 of her 3-point attempts, but for a stretch on Monday, she was the hottest shooter on the court. She hit back-to-back 3-pointers to put Notre Dame in a 31-26 hole with 2:10 left in the first half.

The Cardinal, who came into the night riding a 12-game winning streak, had Notre Dame in unfamiliar territory. That seven-point lead was the second-largest halftime deficit for the Irish all season.

Ogumbowale was whistled for her third foul with 3:33 to go in the third quarter, but by then, the Irish had found their groove. They hit 12 of 17 shots in the third quarter. They outscored Stanford 22-6 in the paint. Young had nine points and four rebounds in that stretch.

Ogunbowale, who scored 55 points in two games, was named the regional’s MVP. Her three-point play early in the fourth quarter helped put Notre Dame in control against Stanford. As the clock ticked down, the crowd stood up and erupted with chants of “We are N-D.”

McGraw grabbed a microphone after the game and thanked the fans, many of whom made the 1½-hour drive from South Bend. “We could not have done it without you,” she said.

They did not care about All-Americans or scoring records late Monday. Notre Dame’s seniors were just relieved they get another week together, one more chance to be champions.

“I feel like the Elite Eight game is always the hardest one,” Mabrey said in the locker room after the game.

UConn, which eliminated No. 1 seed Louisville on Sunday, will present a much bigger challenge for the Irish. The Huskies beat them 89-71 in December. For the past decade, these two teams have been the gold standard in women’s college basketball.

“Last year’s game was a great finish,” McGraw said. “So I wouldn’t mind seeing that again.”

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