Tampa, Fla. — This time, Notre Dame needed Arike Ogunbowale a lot earlier.
A year after Ogunbowale hit an amazing pair of buzzer beaters in the Final Four, the Irish star rushed to the rescue early in the fourth quarter.
Ogunbowale scored 14 of her 23 points in the final period, leading a rally from a nine-point deficit with eight minutes left to help the defending champion Irish beat UConn 81-76 Friday night for a return trip to the title game.
“I don’t think it was any mystery you know who was going to be taking the majority of their shots in the fourth quarter,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It’s the way they’ve always played since Arike’s been there. She still has to make those shots and she did. She’s an almost impossible matchup 1-on-1.”
The Irish will face Baylor for the crown Sunday night, trying to become the fourth different school to win consecutive championships – UConn, Tennessee and Southern California have done it.
Baylor beat Oregon 72-67 in the first semifinal, setting up a rematch of the 2012 national championship game the Lady Bears won 80-61.
This game between the Huskies and the Irish was a rematch of last season’s Final Four classic that Notre Dame won on a last-second shot by Ogunbowale. This one – the latest chapter in the greatest rivalry in women’s basketball over the past decade – provided a fitting encore.
Irish coach Muffet McGraw celebrated by dancing a little jig at midcourt after this comeback victory.
Notre Dame (35-3) trailed 64-55 with 7:52 left before scoring 13 of the next 16 points to take a 68-66 lead on Ogunbowale’s short jumper with 3:56 left. The teams then traded the lead five times over the next few minutes with Jessica Shepard hitting a jumper from the foul line with 1:27 left to put the Irish ahead 75-74.
After Crystal Dangerfield missed a drive down the lane, Ogunbowale hit two free throws to give the Irish a three-point advantage with 58.3 seconds left. On UConn’s next possession, Brianna Turner came flying out of nowhere to block Napheesa Collier’s layup attempt and then Ogunbowale hit two more free throws to make it a five-point game.
“My only mindset was that UConn’s season was going to end tonight no matter what it took,” Turner said. “If I was going to get a rebound, scoring, boxing out, playing hard D, we were going to get the win.”
Katie Lou Samuelson scored 20 points – all in the second half – for the Huskies (35-3).
“Obviously you know we’re incredibly disappointed that we didn’t win the game, but we played a great team and they played really, really well when they had to,” Auriemma said. “We still had a chance. We just weren’t good enough tonight to do it. They were better than us tonight.”
The star matchup between Ogunbowale and Samuelson never got going in the first half. Ogunbowale scored just two points before the break, Samuelson was shut out.
Samuelson was the first to hit in a big way, scoring 15 points in the third quarter. Her three foul shots with a second left gave UConn a 54-52 lead.
The Huskies’ lead kept growing before the Irish rallied in front of a sellout crowd of 20,062. Ogunbowale had 14 points in the fourth quarter.
These two teams have had a habit of playing on the game’s biggest stage. UConn and Notre Dame have now played seven times in the national semifinals or title game since 2011 – the Irish hold a 4-3 advantage.
There has been a different vibe around UConn this season. Unlike the previous two years, they don’t have the burden of a record winning streak or an unbeaten season. Heading into their showdown with rival Irish on Friday night, the Huskies had already lost two games this season and didn’t have, as Auriemma put it, “the fear of losing.”
UConn had never lost three straight years in the Final Four until now.
The Huskies jumped out to a 13-4 lead behind strong play from Collier and a stellar defensive effort as the Irish missed 14 of their first 16 shots. The Irish closed the opening period with an 8-3 burst to only trail by four after one quarter.
The Irish continued its run and took a 22-18 lead on a putback by Ogunbowale. It was her only basket of the first half as she went 1 for 7 from the field.
“She just got off to a slow start in a lot of ways. She feels like she has to carry us because she’s the leading scorer,” McGraw said. “I thought she settled in at halftime. Her teammates really help her. They continue to encourage her and she came alive in the second half.”
The teams then traded the lead over the rest of the half with the Christyn Williams’ jumper in the lane just before halftime giving the Huskies a 30-29 advantage.
Official Michol Murray slipped in the first quarter opposite the UConn bench with 4:54 left and after trainers came over to check her knee, they took her back to the locker room in a wheelchair. Standby official Gina Cross took over. It’s the first time in the history of the Final Four that the standby official had to enter the game according to the NCAA. Official Lisa Jones, who refereed the first game, was brought back to serve as the new standby.
NCAA women’s semifinal
Baylor 72, Oregon 67: Kalani Brown scored 22 points and Lauren Cox added 21 as Baylor (36-1) held off Final Four newcomer Oregon to reach the women’s championship game for the first time since 2012.
The two-time champions won their 28th straight game, exerting themselves defensively down the stretch. Chloe Jackson delivered a tiebreaking layup with 39 seconds left and Brown and Cox finished out the victory with free throws for the overall top-seeded team.
“The feeling is unreal,” Brown said.
Coach Kim Mulkey won national titles as a player and assistant coach at Louisiana Tech. Now, Baylor has a chance to win its third national title with her in charge, facing Notre Dame for the title on Sunday night.
The 56-year-old coach, in her 19th season at Baylor, said she never questioned how her team, who’s played only a handful of games decided by fewer than 10 points, would respond when they fell behind 64-61 with just over six minutes remaining.
During a timeout, Mulkey said Brown — one of two senior starters — looked at teammate Juicy Landrum and told the 5-foot-8 guard the Lady Bears were going to be just fine.
“There was nothing to draw up. No magical words,” Mulkey said. “Just go play.”
All-American Sabrina Ionescu led Oregon (33-5) with 18 points, but didn’t score in the fourth quarter. She missed a layup that would have given her team the lead in the final minute and the Ducks misfired on 12 of their last 13 shots.
“They played like champions today and deserve to move on,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves said.
“I’m really proud of our team, no question about it. We certainly belonged to be here,” Graves added. “We had our chances down the stretch. I just don’t know if we ever got our game going. We saw bits and pieces of it here and there. Credit them. A really good defensive team.”
Mulkey gave Ionescu a hug and talked to her for a few moments in the postgame handshake line. Ionescu shot 6 for 24, including 0-for-7 in the fourth quarter.
After Jackson’s layup, Cox made two free throws and Brown finished with a foul shot in the closing seconds.
Oregon was one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation this season, but was just 12-of-32 from behind the arc and shot 36.8 percent overall.
“I think this is just going to make us more hungry to get back to this stage,” Ionescu said.
The opening semifinal at sold-out Amalie Arena was billed as “old school” vs. “new school” — a matchup of contrasting styles, with Baylor hoping to exploit a size advantage inside with an imposing frontcourt of the 6-foot-7 Brown and 6-4 Cox and Oregon looking to test the Lady Bears’ ability to defend the 3-point line.
Ionescu shrugged off a scoreless first quarter in which she attempted just two shots. She scored 12 in the second quarter and gave Oregon a 34-33 halftime lead after making a long 3 while being bumped to the ground by Baylor’s DiDi Richards.
Ionescu sat on the floor and stared at Richards, whom she thought had fouled her on a shot she missed moments before, before climbing to her feet to make a free throw to finish a four-point play to put Oregon up at the break.
“Our practices prepare us for these moments,” Mulkey said after Baylor’s closest game since a 74-68 win at Texas on Feb. 4.
NCAA women's final
Baylor vs. Notre Dame
Tip-off: 6 p.m., Sunday, Tampa, Fla.
Records: Baylor (36-1); Notre Dame (35-3)
Notable: Notre Dame will be looking to join UConn, Tennessee and Southern Cal in winning consecutive national championships during the NCAA era. It will also be the first championship game since 2012 when both coaches — Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw and Baylor’s Kim Mulkey — are women.