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Viewpoint As the rivalry’s renewed, will we see Mamba or meltdown from Arike?

April 3, 2019

Human blood freezes at 28.4 degrees Fahrenheit, so we know what the temperature was under the No. 24 Notre Dame uniform at last year’s Final Four in Columbus. When Arike Ogunbowale beat UConn and Mississippi State with back-to-back buzzer beaters to capture the national championship, even the great purveyor of Mamba Mentality was blown away.

Cold blooded. Cold, cold blooded.

“Big time shot Arike!” Kobe Bryant tweeted after the NCAA semifinals. “We are a @UConnWBB family but we love seeing great players making great plays.” And after Mississippi State? Kobe couldn’t stop himself from surprising the nation’s newest sports hero on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

Human blood boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, same as water, so we know what the temperature was under the No. 24 Notre Dame uniform on Dec. 2 in South Bend. During the 89-71 loss to UConn, Ogunbowale went up in steam. Frustrated, she lost control. She embarrassed herself. She did some stuff that even more sober voices would call punk. She certainly did stuff that fuels the best rivalry in women’s basketball.

Two days after the game, Ogunbowale would apologize. Not to Crystal Dangerfield or UConn and heavens no, not to Geno Auriemma. Ogunbowale and coach Muffet McGraw saw fit to apologize to Notre Dame fans and alumni.

“I think emotions run pretty high, especially in a game like that,” Auriemma said Tuesday as the programs prepared to meet for the 50th time in the 2018 Final Four. “I remember there were some unbelievably emotional, difficult times when we played Tennessee a couple times every year. I remember there was a tremendous amount of back and forth going at each other in our Rutgers series.

“We’ve been through this a lot. The emotions of a Notre Dame-Connecticut game run really high.”

When rivals meet on the biggest stage, as Notre Dame and UConn will do Friday night in Tampa, there is an irresistible attraction to rank the greatest moments, the greatest games, to add long-standing perspective.

Yet for the competitors involved, the rivalry is as hot- or cold-blooded as the last couple of times they went at it. Ruth Riley won’t be raising the roof in Tampa. Breanna Stewart won’t be blocking any shots, although she evidently no longer is blocked by McGraw on Twitter.

There will be freshman Christyn Williams, who brashly predicted a national title for the Huskies last summer, walked it back in an apology to Auriemma, only to have him walk it back out saying he was happy the kid put that kind of responsibility on herself. Williams responded in December with 28 points against then-No. 1 Notre Dame.

Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson, Dangerfield, Megan Walker, Jessica Shepard, Jackie Young, Brianna Turner, Marina Mabrey — yes, they’ll all be there.

And there will be Notre Dame’s best player Arike Ogunbowale.

But which Arike?

The cold-blooded sniper that became legend?

Or the hothead that melts in frustrating defeat?

This much is certain: Every breath she takes, every shot she makes at the Final Four, the women’s college basketball world will be watching. Will she go Kobe II? Or DeMarcus Cousins and Grayson Allen? For UConn fans, Ogunbowale has become the 21st-century Christian Laettner.

With 3:30 left and UConn leading by 15 on Dec. 2, Ogunbowale and Dangerfield were racing upcourt when Ogunbowale turned into the 5-foot-5 UConn guard, hip-checked her and stuck out her left leg. Dangerfield went flying and landed on her backside. The officials somehow didn’t call a foul.

With 1:42 left, Ogunbowale wrapped her arm around Dangerfield’s head from behind and pulled the UConn guard backward. This time she was nailed with an unsportsmanlike foul.

Both times she put Dangerfield at risk. Both were blind-side cheap shots.

There too had been a play in the third quarter when Williams beat her one-on-one to the basket and Ogunbowale undercut her. Not egregiously, but given the vulnerability of an airborne Williams, dangerously. She was called for the foul.

Then, of course, there is The Geno-Arike Theater.

“Arike is an emotional player,” Auriemma said. “I’ve had some of those. I wish I had more of them.”

Ogunbowale was called for a technical foul midway through the fourth quarter when she barked at Auriemma. According to the UConn coach, he was making comments to the officials about what was happening on the floor, Ogunbowale waved at him dismissively and he answered, “What’s that?” Arike said something pointed. Apparently, it was “Shut up.” There may have been an F-bomb in the package.

“He said some words and I fed right into it and said something back,” Ogunbowale told reporters.

In the postgame line, Ogunbowale refused to shake Auriemma’s hand. His look was priceless.

Two days later, Ogunbowale apologized in a tweet: “To my Irish family. I let my emotions get the best of me on Sunday and I apologize for displaying that type of behavior.”

Mea culpa, Golden Dome. No mea culpa, Jonathan Husky.

The next day, Breanna Stewart — who led UConn to four successive national titles, including three Final Four wins over the Irish — tweeted out a screenshot. McGraw had blocked her. In a ThinkProgress piece that went online over the weekend, McGraw said she had no idea how it happened and when she found out she made sure Stewart was unblocked. McGraw also said. “I don’t care if she follows me.”

“I don’t think anybody owes anybody an apology for anything,” Auriemma said. “Things happen during the course of a game. I’m going to do what I’m going to do. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem. The referees have an obligation to decide is that appropriate or not appropriate. I didn’t expect an apology, nor do I need one, nor do I think one was necessary. Players are emotional. Coaches are emotional. Things get said. Things get done. You just move on.”

Move on. Game on. Rivalry on. Turn the page.

It is no secret that Auriemma and McGraw don’t care much for each other, although neither said anything remotely controversial about the other during Tuesday’s national conference calls. Auriemma was effusive in his praise of Notre Dame: “Even if we play our A-game, we still could lose. That’s how good they are.”

Rivalries, of course, spin on any slight, and it’s a long Final Four week. So we’ll see. In an ESPN.com piece that went online the other day, McGraw said of Auriemma: “I just think he likes to have somebody to bully. It was Pat (Summitt) for a while. I don’t back down from him. And he is always right. That’s what he does. He’s part of the old boys’ network that is pretty strong. They get away with more from the officials, they can say things to the players that they would never take from a female coach.”

Move on. Game on. Turn the page … to, ah, Paige Bueckers. The nation’s top 2020 recruit committed to UConn on Monday. Notre Dame wanted her badly, too. Yes, everything is a battle in the a rivalry that burns hard.

On Friday, it will burn hardest with Arike Ogunbowale.

So what’s it going to be? The 28.2 degrees? Or the 212 degrees? Everybody’s watching.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123