TAMPA, Florida (AP). 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 a nine-point deficit rally with eight minutes to help the defending Irish champion beat UConn 81-76 on Friday night for a return trip to the game by title.
"I do not think it was a mystery to know who was going to take most of his shots in the fourth quarter," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. "It's the way they've always played since Arike was there, he still has to make those shots and he did it, it's an almost impossible 1-on-1 matchup."
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.
Baylor beat Oregon 72-67 in the first semifinal, establishing a rematch of the 2012 national championship game that Lady Bears won 80-61.
This game between the Huskies and the Irish was a rematch of the Final Four clbadic 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 encore.
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 missed a run down the lane, Ogunbowale hit two free throws to give the Irish a three-point lead with 58.3 seconds left. On the next possession of UConn, Brianna Turner flew out of nowhere to block Napheesa Collier's stacking attempt and then Ogunbowale hit two more free throws to turn it into a five-point game.
"My only mentality was that the UConn season was going to end tonight no matter what it cost," said Turner, who set the school career record with his 371 in the game. "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, you know we're incredibly disappointed that we did not win the game, but we played a great team and played very well when they had to," Auriemma said. "We still had a chance, we were not good enough tonight to do it, they were better than us tonight."
The clash of stars between Ogunbowale and Samuelson never came in the first half. Ogunbowale scored just two points before the break, Samuelson was excluded.
Samuelson was the first to hit big, scoring 15 points in the third quarter. His three free throws with a second left gave UConn a 54-52 lead.
The advantage of the Huskies continued to grow before the Irish met in front of a full crowd of 20,062. Ogunbowale had 14 points in the last quarter.
These two teams have the habit of playing on the biggest stage of the game. UConn and Notre Dame have played seven times in the national semifinals or in the title game since 2011: the Irish have a 4-3 advantage.
There has been a different atmosphere at UConn this season. Unlike the previous two years, they do not have the burden of a record winning streak or an undefeated season. Entering his confrontation with his Irish rival on Friday night, the
Huskies had already lost two games this season and did not have, as Auriemma said, "the fear of losing".
UConn had never lost three consecutive years in the Final Four until now.
The Huskies jumped to a 13-4 lead behind Collier's strong play and a stellar defensive effort when the Irish missed 14 of their first 16 shots. The Irish closed the opening period with a burst of 8-3 to just four percent after a quarter.
The Irish continued their career and took a 22-18 lead in a Ogunbowale throwback. It was his only basket of the first half since he was 1 for 7 of the field.
"She had a slow start in many ways, she feels like she has to take us because she's the best scorer," McGraw said. "I thought she settled down at halftime, her teammates really help her, they continue to cheer her up and she came alive in the second half."
Then, the teams swapped the lead for the remainder of the half with the Christyn Williams jumper in the lane just before halftime, which gave the Huskies a 30-29 lead.
Officer Michol Murray slipped in the first quarter in front of the UConn bench with 4:54 left and after the coaches came over to check her knee, they took her back to the locker room in a wheelchair. Waiting officer Gina Cross took charge. According to the NCAA, it is the first time in the history of the Final Four that the reserve official had to enter the game. Officer Lisa Jones, who officiated the first game, was brought back to serve as the new resource.
Samuelson and Collier finished their career with 4,743 points, which is the highest combo for a couple of clbadmates in the history of the school. … This was the 50th meeting between the schools and UConn has a 37-13 advantage in the all-time series. … Turner pbaded the Ruth Riley brand of 370 blocks at Notre Dame. With the five blocks of the last year in the game, he now has 21 in his career in the NCAA, which ranks seventh all-time.
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