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Notre Dame Basketball

Irish Deliver Final Punch In Epic Final Four

March 31, 2018

Notre Dame has taken punches all season. Four ACL injuries have taken a massive toll on the Irish, but head coach Muffet McGraw kept pushing her team. McGraw’s persistence paid off on Friday night has Notre Dame beat UConn 91-89 in overtime to advance to Sunday’s National Title game against Mississippi State. 

The first ten minutes went about as good as they could have gone for the Irish holding a 24-14 lead going into the second quarter. UConn punched Notre Dame in the next ten minutes that would have crippled most teams as the Huskies outscored the Irish 27-10. 

“So proud of this team,” stated McGraw We got off to a great start. We had a little bit of trouble in the second quarter and responded well. It was kind of a dogfight. Both teams were throwing punches. They made some big plays, some good plays. We made some plays back. I thought it came down to rebounding in the fourth quarter in the overtime.”

There were several key plays made down the stretch, but Jessica Shepard, Jackie Young and Arike Ogunbowale were the stars for the Irish on Friday. 

“Jackie Young, I don't know what to say about her,” McGraw said. “I knew she had it in her, and to get a career high in the national semifinal against Connecticut, I don't think you can ask for a better performance than what she gave tonight. Big shot by Arike, unbelievable. She does it all the time in practice, so we weren't that surprised. Definitely an exciting big shot. And Jess was awesome the entire game.

Ogunbowale channeled her inner ‘Mamba mentality’ as she hit a jumper a step inside the three-point line with one second left in overtime…in front of the Black Mamba. 

“We switched who was going to take the ball out two or three times,” recalled Ogunbowale, who scored 27 points. “Jess had the open lane, and Marina got it. And I was like, ‘I guess I'll go get it,’ and my team trusted me to have the ball at the end.

“It felt good. I didn't know it was going in, but it felt good.” 

Kobe Bryant also approved of the shot. 

Irish Sports Daily
Kobe Bryant 

However, it was Young that kept Notre Dame in the game and allowed them to keep the pressure on the Huskies. Young shot 10-for-15 from the field and 10-for-11 from the foul line to finish with 32 points, and she added 11 rebounds for good measure. 

“From the start, they just left me open,” Young said. “I hit my first shot, and after that, we came back down, and they just kept leaving me open. I was able to get going.

“The coaches just really prepared us for this moment. They didn't let us get too hyped up whenever we had a lead. I think we were able to really just keep our composure and just get the job done.” 

Despite scoring 91 points, McGraw felt it was Notre Dame’s defense that made the difference and frustrated UConn at times. 

“I thought our zone was really good tonight,” explained McGraw. “I thought we were active. We moved well. I thought we did a lot of really good things. We were on it with the press. We switched to man to man at times, and we were really aware of where the shooters were. That's something we haven't done a great job of. But I think the resilience just really shines through and the fighting spirit that we had tonight.”

The fighting spirit was something Shepard wanted to bring as she got a rude awakening to the UConn powerhouse her freshman year when Nebraska lost to UConn. Shepard brought it on Friday as she recorded 15 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. 

“My freshman year was a big wakeup call for me,” stated Shepard. “As Geno (Auriemma) said, I was out of shape, and that's why I was missing the easy shots that I'd normally put in. For me, coming in this year, I knew that was something that I wasn't going to let that happen. Just an unreal feeling to be playing for the National Championship on Sunday. It's unbelievable.” 

Notre Dame will play for a National Title against Mississippi State at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday and it will be a chance to finish the season with just three losses despite the injuries. 

“I didn't think we'd have more ACL tears than losses,” said McGraw. “It's just an amazing accomplishment for this team and the resilience they've shown all year.” 

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