Despite challenges, Irish fight their way into ACC championship game

Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale has scored 20 points or more in 20 games this season, including against Florida State on Saturday. Chuck Burton/Associated Press

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey don't agree on much, particularly when it comes to whose dog is the better trained.

"Charlie is pretty bad," Ogunbowale scoffed, referring to Mabrey's mutt, a mere 1 pound when adopted.

An eye roll later, Mabrey launches into tales about Kobi, the golden doodle, named for Ogunbowale's favorite NBA player of all time, even if the spelling doesn't exactly follow.

"He'll just come into my room, jump up on my bed and pee," Mabrey said. "Rike does not know how to train a dog."

They'll feud about Ogunbowale's indulging in video games -- "$300 for what?" Mabrey will tease -- but they also know how to ease the stress of late nights staring at a blank laptop screen, two night owls both seated at the kitchen table in the apartment they share.

Concrete mixers from Culver's, the popular custard joint in South Bend, Indiana.

"Vanilla with Oreos and caramel," is Ogunbowale's favorite.

"Vanilla ice cream with Oreos, brownies and cookie dough," is Mabrey's choice.

The roommates also know how to settle down a Notre Dame team that needed a rally to overcome senior-laden Florida State, which came into Saturday's ACC tournament semifinals having won seven of its past eight.

Mabrey finished with a game-best 27 points and four assists with just one turnover in 35 minutes. Ogunbowale, with 20 points, 5 assists, 2 steals and 3 turnovers, was the only player not to step off the floor at the Greensboro Coliseum.

The Irish (29-2) prevailed 90-80 to advance to Sunday's 2 p.m. ACC championship game for the fifth straight year. Waiting to deny them a ring for every finger is Louisville (30-2), seeking its first ACC tournament title after gritting out a 64-59 win over NC State in the afternoon's first semifinal.

It's an anticipated matchup featuring two potential NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds, even if the only time they met this season unraveled into a blowout. Louisville's 100-67 demolition of the Irish is an outlier among Notre Dame's results. The Irish's other loss was by nine to UConn, that despite the loss of three starters to knee injuries.

All-American forward Brianna Turner was out before the season started, promising freshman center Mikayla Vaughn tore her ACL in practice on Nov. 28 and point guard Lili Thompson went down with a bad knee in January and left Notre Dame without a scholarship player at point guard.

It forced Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw to turn to Mabrey and, at times, Ogunbowale to play even bigger roles than in their two seasons prior.

"For Marina to be doing what she's doing at the point is really remarkable," McGraw said. "She's had to sacrifice her game a little bit -- she's finding ways to score, but she's had to think for the whole team. And she's a lot like me. She's very impatient and she's used to expecting others to read her mind. She's turned into more of a director in calling things. She's really matured."

Mabrey buried four triples Saturday, including one at the first-quarter buzzer and another as time expired in the third quarter, perhaps the most pivotal points of the game. Ogunbowale flicked her the ball in front of the Irish bench and a shot that looked off the mark at first swished through for a 62-60 Irish lead.

Notre Dame never trailed again.

Not that the outcome was ever in doubt in Mabrey's mind, even with the brilliant play of Seminoles senior Shakayla Thomas. The 5-foot-11 forward's 10-of-22 shooting performance from the field for 24 points and seven rebounds kept Florida State a threat throughout.

The Seminoles (25-6) outscored Notre Dame by nine in the second quarter to take a 43-42 halftime lead that would grow to eight.

"No one can guard Shakayla Thomas," Mabrey insisted. "But we just had to calm down. I told everybody, 'Big deal. They made some shots. There's plenty of minutes left.'"

And plenty of Ogunbowale, too. The junior often saves her best for the final quarter. Averaging 5.7 points on 53 percent shooting in the final period all season, the acrobatic guard opened up the fourth with a 3-pointer and added two more as the clock ticked toward a championship game with plenty of hype.

McGraw has made no secret of who she believes was deserving of ACC Player of the Year honors. It's hard to argue with Ogunbowale's season, which also includes 20 games in which she's scored 20 points or more. She's up for every major postseason honor and leads the league with a 20.3-point average.

But the league's top honor went to another junior, Louisville's Asia Durr, earlier in the week. While it's been a quiet ACC tournament for Durr -- the 5-10 guard finished with nine points and three assists against the Wolfpack -- she has made plenty of noise this season.

The league's most consistent 3-point shooter, having amassed 604 points and counting this season, has been nothing short of a monster at times. Take your pick from the 47 she scored at Ohio State, her 32 at Kentucky, or how about dropping 36 in the whopping victory over these Irish on Jan. 11?

Durr, friends with Ogunbowale from playing for USA Basketball together, smiles when told about McGraw's touting the Notre Dame guard for the league's individual accolade. Repeating one of her favorite phrases, she said, "Everybody's entitled to their opinion."

Besides, Louisville wants this thing, she says. "It means a lot for our program, for our fans, for our coaches," Durr said. "All the hard work we put in preseason, summer, 5 or 6 o'clock in the morning. We want it to pay off."

And the Irish want to keep their good thing going. Their loss nearly two months ago to the Cardinals isn't even an afterthought.

"It's like, 'What game?'" Mabrey said. "It's over. They got to beat us again."

The one they'll be talking about this postseason is Sunday, when the best two teams from the conference fight for the right to haul home the bigger trophy.