COLUMBUS, Ohio — Notre Dame will be out to snap a 17-year championship drought in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Sunday (6 p.m., ESPN) when the Irish take the floor against Mississippi State in Nationwide Arena.
A Big Five team has never made it this far, per se, but on Friday, the programs of St. Joseph’s and the Irish (34-3) were twisted like the shape of a Philly soft pretzel, beginning in late afternoon with Hawks senior Avery Marz receiving the Pat Summitt Most Courageous Award from the United States Basketball Writers Association, for returning this season after suffering a stroke during her freshman season..
The day ended as the clock struck midnight as Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw, a St. Joseph’s graduate, guided the Irish to a stunning upset of previously unbeaten Connecticut on Arike Agunbowale’s jump shot with one second remaining to win 91-89 in overtime.
OMG THAT ENDING TO THE NOTRE DAME-UCONN WOMEN'S GAME….Ogunbowale!!!!! pic.twitter.com/Rmn6MeQp2B
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) March 31, 2018
On the other side was Hall of Famer Geno Auriemma, who preceded McGraw as a Hawks women’s assistant under Jim Foster before her hire in 1980.
It’s the second straight year that the Huskies (36-1) have had a season reduced to just near-perfect in the national semifinals; Morgan William hit a similar shot at the same moment last season as Mississippi State ended UConn’s record 111-game win streak.
The Bulldogs (37-1) performed similar magic Friday night with a closing score in regulation on the way to a 73-63 overtime victory in the opener against Louisville (36-3). Sunday will be their first-ever meeting with the Irish.
The sellout crowd of 19,564 was treated to a historic evening. This was the first time in the tournament’s history, beginning in 1982, that both national semifinal games went to overtime.
It’s getting quickly old for Auriemma.
“Sometimes you have to fail and be exposed when it’s all on you,” said Auriemma, who has a record 11 titles. “It’s a great learning tool. But I’m a pretty smart guy. I don’t have to learn this [crap] two years in a row.”
McGraw has been his toughest teacher, eliminating the Huskies four times in seven meetings in the semifinals, beginning in 2001, when Notre Dame won its own championship two days later against Purdue.
The Irish then did it in seasons in 2011 and 2012, the last time UConn lost successively at this stage until the last two years.
A year ago, McGraw, already a Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer, was named to the Naismith Hall in Springfield, Mass., where she was inducted last September.
Her overall coaching record is 887-271 in 36 seasons but she can earn her 800th win at Notre Dame, where she’s in her 31st year, if the Irish win Sunday.
A year ago, Mississippi State couldn’t complete its total mission, losing to Southeastern Conference rival South Carolina under Dawn Staley.
While the Gamecocks were superior, the energy taken to topple the Huskies had an impact.
McGraw, whose team is in its sixth NCAA title game and fifth in the last eight years, said at Saturday’s media session her teams suffered similar situations following wins over UConn.
“Anytime you beat Connecticut, because of the dominance of their program, it’s just an emotional win,” she said. “It makes it really hard to kind of get back to work. You feel like that should have been the championship game. We should be going home right now.”
Both McGraw and Mississippi State’s Vic Schaefer have shared this season’s national coaching honors.
There is general agreement this is her best job, having to manage a roster reduced to seven players because of four who are sidelined with major knee injuries.
McGraw said the turning point of the season was rallying from a 23-point deficit and igniting a 37-point swing at home on Jan. 18 to beat Tennessee, 84-70, the largest in-game turnaround in program history.
Against Mississippi State, the Irish will face a lineup headed by four prominent seniors, including All-American post player Victoria Vivians, who is aided by her All-American teammate, junior Teaira McCowan, who had 21 points and a record 25 rebounds against Louisville.
Two keys for Notre Dame are Jackie Young, who has a career-high 32 points, Ogunbowale, who scored 27, and Nebraska transfer Jessica Shepard, who had 15 points and 11 rebounds against UConn.
Meanwhile, at the start of Friday’s events, Marz’ acceptance of her award was the emotional off-court highlight this weekend, with Lisa and Brent Hill, parents of the late Lauren Hill, making the presentation of the Summitt award. They acknowledged Marz’s love-of-the-game effort to get back on the court after her stroke. Marz has said she was inspired by Hill, who died in April 2015 of brain cancer, but lived to play several games as a Division III collegian at Mount St. Joseph’s.
Among Marz’s well wishers in the audience were retiring longtime St. Joseph’s athletic director Don DiJulia and his successor, Jill Bodensteiner, who until June is McGraw’s boss as the Notre Dame senior women’s athletic director.
So there’s no question whom folks on Hawk Hill will be cheering when Notre Dame and Mississippi State tip off Sunday night