TAMPA, Florida. – This time, Notre Dame needed Arike Ogunbowale much earlier.
A year after Ogunbowale hit an incredible pair of batters in the Final Four, the Irish star rushed to rescue early in the fourth quarter.
Ogunbowale scored 14 of his 23 points in the final period, leading an increase of a 9-point deficit with eight minutes to help the defending Irish champion beat UConn, 81-76, on Friday night for a return trip to game for the title.
"I do not think there's any mystery in knowing who will take the majority of his shots in the fourth quarter," said University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. "It's the way they've always played since Arike was there, she still has to make those shots and she did it, she's an almost impossible match of 1 on 1."
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The Irish will face Baylor for the crown on Sunday night, trying to become the fourth different school to win consecutive championships: UConn, Tennessee and Southern California have succeeded.
This game between the Huskies and the Irish was a rematch of the clbadic Final Four of last season that Notre Dame won in an Ogunbowale shot in the last second. This, the last chapter of the greatest rivalry in women's basketball in the last decade, provided an adequate adjustment.
Irish coach Muffet McGraw celebrated by dancing a small squad in midfield after this return win.
Notre Dame (35-3) lost, 64-55, with 7:52 to play before scoring 13 of the next 16 points to take a 68-66 lead in the Ogunbowale short jumper with 3:56 to play. Then, the teams exchanged the advantage five times in the following minutes, with Jessica Shepard hitting a shot from the foul line with 1:27 to play to put the Irish ahead, 75-74.
After Crystal Dangerfield failed a lane down the lane, Ogunbowale hit two free throws to give the Irish a 3-point lead with 58.3 seconds left. On the next possession of UConn, Brianna Turner flew out of nowhere to block Napheesa Collier's attempt and then Ogunbowale hit two more free throws to turn it into a 5-point game.
"My only mentality was that the UConn season was going to end tonight no matter what it cost," Turner said. "If I was going to get a rebound, score, box, play hard, we were going to get the victory."
Katie Lou Samuelson scored 20 points, all in the second half, for the Huskies (35-3).
"Obviously, we know that we are incredibly disappointed that we did not win the game, but we played a great team and they played very well when they had to do it," Auriemma said. "We still had a chance, we just were not good enough tonight to do it, they were better than us tonight."