COLUMBUS, Ohio — How about Arike Ogunbowale for encores?
After severing Connecticut from its unbeaten season Friday night in the national semifinals with a three-point shot at the buzzer in overtime, the 5-foot-8 junior guard got the job done again at the finish, only this time in regulation.
As the final seconds ticked down, she launched another trey Sunday night before the buzzer to cap an incredible comeback, the largest in title-game history, and give Notre Dame a 61-58 victory over Mississippi State and the NCAA women’s basketball championship in Nationwide Arena.
It’s Notre Dame’s second title, coming in its sixth appearance in the championship, and the first since 2001.
The victory by the Irish (35-3) keeps the trophy in the hands of a Philadelphia-area coach for the third straight season with St. Joseph’s grad — and former Archbishop Carroll coach — Muffet McGraw following South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma.
“I’m just so speechless at this point,” McGraw said. “To see this team come back from yet another huge deficit, to see Arike make an incredible shot, to see the resilience of this team that never gave up.
“Thank you, Jesus, on Easter Sunday.”
Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard, a Nebraska transfer who managed to gain NCAA eligibility at the start of the season, had 19 points, Ogunbowale finished with 18, and Marina Mabrey scored 10.
Mississippi State’s two All-American post stars provided the firepower for the Bulldogs, with Victoria Vivians scoring 21 points and nine rebounds, while Teaira McCowan scored 18 and grabbed 17 rebounds.
They could make another Notre Dame movie on the basis of this group, guided by McGraw on an improbable run to glory while losing four key stars, two of whom are WNBA material, to serious knee injuries.
“When I saw it travel a little bit, I thought so,” Ogunbowale said of watching her shot drop on the final play. “But that last play, there was just a lot going on. I can’t even describe it.”
Jackie Young, who fed the pass, talked about the options and finally going to Ogunbowale, who was voted the most outstanding player.
“I just made sure Arike was literally coming to the ball before I passed it to her,” she said. “We had confidence in her. As soon as she put up the shot, I knew it was going in.”
Despite managing a roster of seven players, many of whom were also nicked, the Irish navigated the non-conference and Atlantic Coast Conference schedules, losing in the regular season to Connecticut and twice to Louisville.
The crowd of people who watched the action all weekend — including 19 ,599 on Sunday night — witnessed what now is easily the greatest women’s Final Four in NCAA history, since the tournament began in 1982. All three games were cliffhangers. Before Ogunbowake worked her spell Friday over UConn, the opener saw Mississippi State force overtime at the end of regulation before taking control of Louisville.
As uplifting this win was for the Irish, it was as rough a loss for the Bulldogs (37-2), whose only loss before Sunday was to South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference title.
A year ago, Mississippi State clipped Connecticut at the buzzer in overtime before losing to rival South Carolina two days later.
This time, coach Vic Schaefer’s squad set all kind of program marks and appeared on the way to taking the final step Sunday night, when a defensive show beginning in the second quarter powered the Bulldogs to a 15-point lead with 6 minutes, 41 seconds left in the third.
But just as Notre Dame shook off a 24-point swing by the Huskies, the Irish weren’t ready to call it a season against the Bulldogs. Sure enough, they stirred once more, with a 16-1 run to enter the fourth quarter deadlocked at 41-41.
Rashonda Johnson’s three-pointer gave MSU a five-point lead with 1:58 left in regulation. But the Irish’s Mabrey nailed a trey and Jackie Young’s jumper tied it at 58-58 with 45 seconds left.
“It’s my job to get them home inside of four minutes, and I didn’t get them home today,” Schaefer said of the lead getting away. “I’ll wear that for maybe the rest of my career.”
McCowan missed a jumper, but stole Mabrey’s rebound, only to see Morgan William, the heroine of the win over UConn last year, lose the ball to Young.
McCowan gave herself up with her fifth foul to stop a break with three seconds left.
But that was plenty of time to Ogunbowale to become an Irish legend for the ages.