Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Notre Dame Deals Connecticut Another Heartbreaker While Mississippi State Returns to the Championship Contest

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Having built a reputation as the dominant team in NCAA women’s basketball tournament history, the Connecticut Huskies became a lightning strike victim at the finish in overtime Friday night for the second straight season when Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale hit a jump shot with a second remaining to give the Irish an improbable 91-89 victory in the national semifinals.

Ironically, a strike of midnight to prematurely end what otherwise was a magic run occurred at midnight.

The shocking defeat again short-circuiting another unbeaten finish in the Women’s Final Four came one year after Mississippi State’s Morgan William beat the clock in the extra period to end UConn’s record 111-win streak.

In the opener here Friday night at Nationwide Arena, the Bulldogs earned a way back to a second straight national title game appearance when Roshunda Johnson nailed a game-tying three pointer with seven seconds remaining in regulation and Mississippi State went on to a 73-63 victory over Louisville.

It was the first time both games went into overtime in the national semifinals in tightly-fought contests to make the evening the best-ever at this stage of the tournament since its initial season in 1981-82.

All-American Victoria Vivians had 25 points for Mississippi State and Teaira McCowan, the other Bulldogs all-American scored 21 while grabbing a record 25 rebounds.

Asia Durr had 18 points for Louisville, Jazmine Jones had 15, and Myisha Hines-Allen scored 15 for the Atlantic Coast Conference champions.

“Ro’s got to make a shot,” said Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer about the finish in regulation. “Let’s face it. It’s the biggest shot of the night, of your career, of the biggest stage you’re ever going to play on.

“I don’t care where she plays after this. She’s been somebody we’ve been really blessed to have.”

Schaefer and Notre Dame’s Muffet MGraw have received most of the national coaching awards handed out in the postseason.

“It was a great ball game,” said Louisville coach Jeff Walz of the opener. “I mean, back and forth runs by both teams. I thought we competed, we played our hearts outs. I thought they played their hearts out. Just an unbelievable basketball game.

“It’s just a tough one, but I couldn’t be more proud of these young women.”

Before Friday, one could point to improbable rallies and upsets by heavy underdogs at the 2005 semifinals as best ever when eventual champion Baylor erased a 15-point deficit over LSU in the final 28 minutes and Michigan State roared back from a 16-point deficit with 14.5 minutes remaining to overcome Tennessee in Indianapolis.

The other candidate best-ever twin bill in the national semifinals in terms of upsets as opposed to rallies came in 2011 also in Indianapolis when eventual champion Texas A&M edged Stanford before Notre Dame took down its conference rival UConn out of the old Big East.

But both of those must now take a back seat to what was already perceived as the most loaded Women’s Final Four with each team having been made a No. 1 seed when the 64-team field and pairings were announced.

Furthermore since last November’s opening tip, in terms of strength, Connecticut (36-1) had shaken off the loss to Mississippi State to stay at the top of the polls the entire way into Friday night while the Bulldogs (37-1), Louisville (36-3), and Notre Dame (34-3) were all top five the final 14 weeks of polling out of 19 overall prior to the start of March Madness.

Notre Dame almost took the Huskies down in their annual regular season meeting when the Irish were on the way to an upset through three quarters but succumbed to an 80-71 loss at Connecticut, which surged down the stretch.

The two Philadelphia-bred coaches, UConn’s Geno Auriemma, who has almost every record as a women’s mentor, and Notre Dame’s McGraw, who played at Saint Joseph’s, are both Hall of Famers.

Auriemma has won a record 11 national titles, earned another record 19 Final Four appearances, including the last 11 straight, while McGraw won a national title in 2001 and on Sunday her Irish will be in their sixth national title game and fifth in the last eight years when they meet Mississippi State, which fell a year ago in the championship to Southeastern Conference rival South Carolina under Dawn Staley.

The 180 combined points are the most in a Women’s Final Four contest. The previous total was 178 in the national championship won by Texas over Southern Cal in 1986 and the previous semifinals combined scoring mark was 171 in 1986 when Tennessee beat UConn.

For all of the Huskies’ success they have found Notre Dame to be a thorn when meeting in the Final Four, which is now seven meetings with a 4-3 advantage to the Irish as of Friday night.

Furthermore the last back-to-back semifinals losses were to Notre Dame in 2011 and 2012.

McGraw’s ability to reach the championship is considered her best effort considering her group has lost four key players to knee injuries reducing her roster to seven healthy stars, which at times have been less to other nagging setbacks.

“We got off to a straight start,” McGraw said recapping the game in which Notre Dame roared to a 13-point lead in the opening quarter and finished the period up by 10.

“We had a little but of trouble in the second quarter but responded well,” she referred to a UConn rally to own the period 27-10 and hit the break ahead 41-34.

“It was kind of a dogfight, I thought,” she said. “Both teams throwing punches. I thought it came down to rebounding in the fourth quarter and the overtime.”

Connecticut was down five with 21 seconds left in regulation but came back on a three-pointer by Napheesa Collier and a steal and layup by Kia Nurse to force the extra period.

It was obvious this time that the Irish were not going to fade.

In the extra period, Jessica Shepard, the transfer from Nebraska who was surprisingly granted eligibility at the outset of the season, snapped the tie, making one of two shots, Nurse responded with a trey, and then before Ogunbowale tied it on a layup.

Shepard’s shot and two foul shots by Ogunbowale pushed the Irish to an 86-82 lead with 3:04 left in the overtime before Crystal Dangerfield cut the deficit to two.

But Jackie Young, who had a career-high 32 points and also grabbed 11 rebounds, made three of the next four foul shooting attempts to make it 89-84 with 44 seconds left in the overtime.

Collier than hit a jumper, Ogunbowale then missed a pair of free throws, and Dangerfield tied it 89-89 with 22 seconds left off an assist from Gabby Williams.

Then Notre Dame made the last possession good, Ogunbowale atoning for two missed foul shots with her game-winner to finish with 27 points while Shepard scored 15 and grabbed 11 rebounds.

Collier had 24 points for the Huskies, reserve Azura Stevens scored 19, Katie Lou Samuelson had 16, Gabby Williams scored 12 and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Nurse scored 10.

“Well there’s really not a whole lot you can say about a moment like that, to have a game like that and then come up short,” Auriemma said. “We knew we were playing a great team, obviously, and we knew they had a lot of players that could decide the game.

“They thought they had us put away a couple of times, and we kept coming back and coming back, and we just ran out of time.”

Said Nurse, the star Canadian who finished her collegiate career, “I think it was one of those games, obviously, it was just a grind back and forth the entire game, and it was just a battle.

“I think, like ‘Coach said, “there were so many times they could have put us away, and we clawed and clawed and clawed back into it and made big play after big play. Some I’m proud of my team and the way they played in that section.”

Asked to comment on coming up short after the effort, Auriemma said, “Some things don’t need explanations, you know. You can’t really really describe what goes into — what goes into getting here and trying to win a championship.

“It’s very, very difficult. For a long time, we made it look like it was easy, but it’s very, very difficult, as it’s played out the last two years. There are no bad teams. There are no bad players. You can’t luck into a national championship. You have to play great,” he continued.

“For us to make the plays that we made … I mean, that’s what Connecticut basketball is all about. But they made one more big play than we did tonight.”

On the way the entire night went, McGraw said, “Unbelievable. Both games, hard fought battles and exciting for the fans. That had to be great a TV game both times.

“I probably should thank every Catholic from coast to coast for all the prayers on Good Friday at the end of that game.”



Post a Comment

<< Home