Notre Dame Advances To Final Four
What looked like an April Fool joke in the first half for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team turned into another April 1 celebration in the second half.
It was one year ago on that day the Fighting Irish won the national title. The opportunity to do so again this year awaits after reaching the Final Four thanks to an 84-68 victory versus Pac-12 champion Stanford on Monday night at the Chicago Regional.
At Tampa, Fla. this Friday evening, No. 1 Baylor (35-1) will play Oregon (33-4) in the first game, while Notre Dame (34-3) and Connecticut (35-2) will square off in the nightcap (around 9:30 p.m) for the eighth time in the Final Four. This also marks Notre Dame's seventh trip to the Final Four in the last nine seasons.
Head coach Muffet McGraw’s Fighting Irish hold a 4-3 advantage over the Huskies in Final Four action, including the 91-89 overtime thriller on a last-second Arike Ogunbowale bucket last March 30. However, UConn has won eight of the last nine meetings in the series, most recently an 89-71 victory last Dec. 2 at Notre Dame.
Advancement to the Final Four appeared to be a fading outlook the first half against Stanford. In the worst and lowest-scoring half played all year by Notre Dame, it finished 10 of 39 from the field (25.6 percent) and trailed 33-26 at the intermission.
After facing its largest deficit (35-26), Notre Dame matched its 26-point outpoint from the first half in the third quarter alone by converting 12 of 17 field goal attempts (70.6 percent) while limiting the Cardinal to 13 points.
Stanford still led 40-33 — and then second-team AP All-American Ogunbowale went to the bench with 3:34 left in the quarter with the Cardinal still ahead 42-39. That’s when McGraw began isolating junior Jackie Young — whose right pinky finger was heavily bandaged from a fall earlier in the game — off the ball screens in the middle on which she scored off drives to her left or right, on short jumpers or by drawing fouls.
A Young drive and pull-up finish put the Irish ahead for good at 45-44 with 2:10 left in the third quarter, and she followed with a jumper. The Irish ended the quarter on a 19-6 run to take a 52-46 cushion into the fourth quarter.
The killer instinct then took over as the lethal fast-break attack, quarter-court offense and high-low looks at which Notre Dame was so proficient all year resulted in 32 fourth-quarter points. Young finished with a game high 25 points and collected her 12th double-double this season with 10 rebounds. The double-double total is the highest in one season by a Notre Dame guard, and she also tied the career record with 17.
Speaking of double-doubles, senior Jessica Shepard collected her 10th in the last 14 games with 11 points and 14 rebounds, once again triggering the fast break with her quick outlet passes. Ogunbowale started cold and sat for a spell after picking up her third foul, but still finished with 21 points. Especially encouraging was the Irish turnaround began to occur while she was on the sidelines.
• In the first half, the Irish shot 25.6 percent, and in the second it was 63.9 percent (23 of 36).
• In the first half Notre Dame scored 26 points, and in the second it poured in 58.
• In the first half Notre Dame had 12 points in the paint, and in the second it was 40.
• In the first half Notre Dame was out-rebounded 28-22, and in the second the Irish had a commanding 26-10 advantage on the boards, which facilitated its deadly downhill, fast-break attack.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen at halftime — we were playing about as bad as we can play,” McGraw told ESPN afterwards. “When Arike got that third foul, we went to Jackie and she delivered almost every single time …It was tough to get back [to the Final Four]. We certainly made it tougher than we had to, but credit Stanford. Their defense was amazing today.”
Stanford entered the contest 18th nationally in field-goal percentage defense (35.8 percent), and No. 3 among the 65 Power 5 Conference teams.
1. Wrong Kind Of ‘Consistency’
While it was a tale of two halves on offense for Notre Dame, Stanford was very consistent: 14 of 34 shooting in the first half (41.2 percent) and 13 of 34 (38.2 percent) in the second. That kind of "consistency" won't be good enough against the Irish. What did keep it in the game was 10 of 22 shooting beyond the arc after converting only 3 of 29 the previous round versus Missouri State.
Somewhat overshadowed was the Irish committed only seven turnovers.
2. Rally Daughters Of Notre Dame
This game had an awfully familiar feel to last year’s championship run: hanging by the proverbial thread in the first half while facing elimination — and then explosive second half. Last year Notre Dame was tied at halftime against Villanova in the second round, trailed at one point 37-24 in the Sweet 16 versus Texas A&M before winning 90-84, trailed Oregon 46-37 before rallying for an 84-74 conquest, seemed primed to gets it door blown off when trailing UConn 41-30 — and then the 40-25 deficit in the second half versus Mississippi State in the championship game before prevailing 61-58.
Last year the mentality was to stay out of foul trouble in the first half, tread water — and then strike in the second. The blueprint of not fouling in the first half while playing somewhat passively on defense appears to have continued because of another short bench, or the disparity between the first and second units. Which brings us to…
3. Dear Abby
An unsung hero for the Irish off the bench for the Irish was freshman guard Abby Prohaska, who provided quality minutes (11 total) in both halves while giving the starting guard rotation some needed rest. Her hustle always has been conspicuous, but she also added clutch baskets on her two lone shot attempts, plus three rebounds and an assist.
Particularly crucial was her play when Ogunbowale was on the bench the final 3:34 of the third quarter, when Notre Dame began to detonate instead of self-destruct. Prohaska made an aggressive cut and drive to the basket and switched from her left hand to right hand on the move for a lay-in to provide the Irish a 50-44 advantage.