Notre Dame Survives And Advances Into Elite Eight
After winning its last 11 games by an average of 30 points, Notre Dame faced the question of how it would respond when it would finally confront inevitable game pressure in the NCAA Tournament.
So far, so good.
Tied at 69 with seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the veteran and reigning national champions called upon the clutch gene — specifically senior guard Arike Ogunbowale — to stave off a young but extremely game and confident Texas A&M outfit with an 87-80 victory in the Sweet 16 of the Chicago Regional. The Fighting Irish (33-3) will play Stanford (31-4), a 55-46 winner versus Missouri State, in the Elite Eight Monday (April 1) shortly after 9 p.m.
Ogunbowale scored a career high 34 points, 24 of them in the second half, to pace the victory. Her performance helped nullify a superb 35-point effort by Texas A&M sophomore guard Chennedy Carter — who also had a 31-point output last year, with seven assists, in a 90-84 Sweet 16 defeat to Notre Dame.
“I already knew we had fight, but we definitely showed it today,” Ogunbowale told ESPN afterwards. “We just have to keep carrying that through the tournament.”
The first half featured 15 lead changes — with the Irish taking the largest advantage at 23-18 — before both teams went into their dressing rooms at the intermission deadlocked at 42. Carter picked up her second foul with 5:54 left in the first quarter, but Aggies head coach Gary Blair put his trust in her to not pick up a third before halftime and it paid off while she scored 16 first-half points, highlighted by 4 of 5 from three-point range. No team can run the fast break like Notre Dame, but the Irish were beaten and outhustled several times in transition.
The second half began with what appeared to be a typical Notre Dame rampage. Two quick Irish buckets to make it 46-42 led Blair to call time out 50 seconds into the half — only to see Notre Dame score four more points for a 50-42 cushion. Jolted but still standing, Texas A&M pulled within 57-55 when Carter, whom Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said had become “unguardable,” drilled her sixth trey in eight attempts, and by the end of the third quarter the Irish still were ahead only 65-62.
With 9:03 remaining, a Carter drive put the Aggies ahead 67-65 before back-to-back buckets by junior guard Jackie Young (14 points, eight rebounds) returned the lead to Notre Dame. When Texas A&M reserve Aja Ellison converted a jumper to knot the game again at 69, a 7-0 Irish run provided the cushion and eventual margin of victory.
• When it’s crunch time, it’s Ogunbowale time — and the all-time Irish scoring leader drilled the team’s second three of the game (the Irish had been 1 of 8 beyond the arc) with 6:46 remaining to put Notre Dame ahead for good (72-69).
• On A&M’s next possession, Ogunbowale came up with a steal on a scramble for the ball and drove three-quarters of the court for a lay-up.
• With A&M’s offense beginning to wear out, the lead was upped to 76-69 on a Young jumper with 4:13 remaining.
The closest the Aggies came thereafter was 83-78 after a technical foul on Ogunbowale during a game of “verbal chippiness” was called.
1. Overshadowed … But Brilliant Again
Lost in the performance of two of the nation’s five most electrifying guards in the country — Ogunbowale and Carter — was a superb all-around effort by Notre Dame senior Jessica Shepard. She must be used to it by now because the same happened in last year’s run to the national title when in the six games she averaged 19.0 points on 58.1 percent shooting, and 9.3 rebounds. Versus Texas A&M in which Shepard played every second, she scored 24 points on 11 of 18 field-goal shooting, grabbed 14 rebounds, and handed out six assists.
We already know her as peerless with the outlet pass to trigger the break, but her interior touch passing and court vision are also as fine as one will see. She balanced that finesse with physicality that featured four put-back baskets among her six offensive rebounds.
2. Volume & Efficiency
Was it just me … or did it seem like Carter shot much better than her final 13 of 34 — which is what Joe Montana was in completions and attempts (with four interceptions) in the legendary 1979 Cotton Bowl 35-34 win versus Houston — for 38.2 percent? Perhaps it was because Carter was 7 of 12 from three-point range, meaning she was only 6 of 22 inside of it.
When someone is as prolific and talented as she is, it seems sometimes everything is falling. Yet the Irish did do just enough to force those misses. Having to constantly work to put up 35 shots can be fatiguing as well, and it might have caught up in the end.
3. Elite (8) Performances
Monday night will be Notre Dame’s 10 appearance in the Elite Eight, and seventh in the last eight seasons. No school in the country with at least five appearances in the Elite Eight has been better once it advances there. The Irish are 8-1 for a .889 winning percentage. UConn is second with a 19-5 ledger (.792), Stanford third at 13-6 (.684) and Tennessee fourth (.643 while going 18-10).
The lone Irish loss there came two years ago … to Stanford.