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There was no other player the Notre Dame women’s basketball team would have wanted at the foul line Sunday night with its championship hopes at stake.
Arike Ogunbowale has been women’s basketball’s queen of clutch, a label she has earned over the course of a brilliant career highlighted by a pair of historic buzzer beaters on the sport’s biggest stage.
Having drawn a foul to give herself a chance to tie Sunday’s national title game at the free throw line with less than two seconds to go, Ogunbowale had a chance to be the hero once again. The 80.6 percent free throw shooter confidently strode to the foul line and released the first of two foul shots, only to bow her head in surprise and frustration as the ball rimmed in and out.
That missed free throw proved to be the difference between Notre Dame forcing overtime and Baylor capturing its third championship in program history. The Bears survived an ill-timed injury to maybe their most important player and a spirited fourth-quarter comeback from the Irish to emerge with an 82-81 victory.
“The game didn't come down to that free throw,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw told reporters afterward. “I mean, the game was 40 minutes. There were plenty of mistakes we made throughout the game that caused us to lose, most notably the first quarter. Just didn't come out ready.”
Baylor had taken the lead moments earlier on a basket from a fifth-year senior who transferred into Kim Mulkey’s program for the chance to win a championship after being bounced in the first round at LSU the past two years. Chloe Jackson scored the Bears’ biggest basket, a tie-breaking driving layup with 3.9 seconds to put her team ahead by two.
Then the Bears managed to prevent Ogunbowale from doing to them what she did to UConn and Mississippi State a year ago at the Final Four. Moon Ursin fouled Ogunbowale on her baseline drive rather than let her get a clean look at a game-tying basket.
There was history at stake for both programs during Sunday night’s tense final few minutes. Whichever school won would capture its third national championship, a feat only women’s basketball titans UConn (11) and Tennesssee (8) have achieved.
For more than 28 minutes, Baylor appeared to be in complete control. Then an injury to star forward Lauren Cox altered the course of history.
Cox had to leave the floor in a wheelchair late in the third quarter after a teammate stepped on her foot in the paint and her right knee buckled underneath her. Baylor’s 12-point lead had completely vanished by the time the 6-foot-4 junior limped back to the bench with a brace on her knee.
While Cox’s replacement NaLyssa Smith actually scored 14 points, including a few key late baskets, the freshman had a tough time replacing Cox’s presence at the defensive end. Notre Dame went right at Smith, either attacking her in the low post or using a ball screen to get Ogunbowale matched up with her on the perimeter.
Ogunbowale had 12 of her game-high 31 points after Cox’s injury, adding to her big-game reputation and helping to rally her team. Marina Mabrey also sank three huge fourth-quarter 3-pointers, the last of which tied the score at 74.
Once Notre Dame forged that tie, it felt like a matter of time before Ogunbowale won it for the Irish.
There’s no player in women’s college basketball who is better in those moments than Ogunbowale. This time she just fell one free throw short.
“I mean, it's tough. It's tough,” Ogunbowale told reporters. “You can't really do anything about that one.”
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