Arike Ogunbowale would prefer to not have to win another national title in the closing seconds.
“Hopefully this year, if we get to that position, we’re up by enough and not trying to win on a buzzer-beater,” Ogunbowale quipped.
The heroine of Notre Dame’s national championship run last year — who won both Final Four and title games with dramatic, last-second shots — is ready for her last ride through the bracket, starting Saturday when the Fighting Irish (30-3), the No. 1 seed in the Chicago Region, hosts 16th-seeded Bethune-Cookman (21-10) in the first round.
Ogunbowale’s off-balance 3-pointer with 0.1 seconds left to beat Mississippi State in the championship game marked just the second game-winning shot in the final second of a championship game. The other came 25 years ago, when Charlotte Smith’s 3 at the buzzer gave North Carolina the title in 1994.
But Ogunbowale — who also knocked off Connecticut with a jumper with one second left in overtime in the semifinals — hasn’t exactly spent the past year reflecting on where her heroics rank in history. The Milwaukee native is more interested in leading the Irish on another run.
“I think that’s for the experts to judge,” she said. “I don’t really sit there and think about where I’m going to be in college basketball history. But it was two great shots, I don’t know how they’re going to rank it. I’m just worried about winning national championships.”
Still, it was a life-changing moment for Ogunbowale — and for the sport as a whole, she said. The obvious choice as the Final Four’s most outstanding player became an instant celebrity, appearing as a guest on Ellen DeGeneres’ show and doing the salsa on “Dancing With The Stars.”
That attention naturally brought more eyeballs to the rest of the sport.
“We won a national championship, so that’s the biggest way it changed it,” Ogunbowale said. “But I think it was great for women’s basketball. The publicity that we got really all over, not just our team — people started watching a lot this year, all different teams and the competitive games that have been going on.”
Now she’s gearing up for what she hopes is six more of them in her final NCAA Tournament.
The Fighting Irish won their fourth Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in five years and have the nation’s highest-scoring offense, averaging 89 points. Ogunbowale averaged 21 points, three-tenths of a point behind ACC leader Asia Durr of Louisville.
But with four of her teammates also averaging at least 13 points, Notre Dame hasn’t had to be the Arike Show.
“I don’t think a lot of teams in the country have that kind of firepower on offense,” coach Muffett McGraw said. “Any one of them could have 30 on any given night. So it’s a great chemistry that we have that nobody tries to do too much.”
That balance — and that experience of winning it all — make Ogunbowale and the Irish that much more dangerous this time around.
“Just winning the national championship last year, we know how that feels,” she said, “and we definitely want to get back to that place.”
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