COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A rattled, unnerved Notre Dame team walked to the locker room at halftime of Sunday night's NCAA championship game, trailing Mississippi State by 13 points and looking every bit like a squad that exhausted its energy and emotion beating UConn two nights earlier.
The Irish scored only three points in the second quarter at Nationwide Arena, the fewest in any quarter in Final Four history. Arike Ogunbowale couldn't make a shot. Marina Mabrey kept turning it over. And no one could hit a 3-pointer or keep Mississippi State center Teaira McCowan off the glass. It was a mess.
"We weren't really playing our game at all," senior forward Kathryn Westbeld said. "I think a lot of us were shook a little bit. Our minds were kind of going everywhere."
That Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw got her players focused and back on track, overcoming the largest deficit in an NCAA championship game (15 points in the third quarter) in a 61-58 thriller for the program's first national title since 2001, says plenty about how McGraw and her staff coach motivate.
First, McGraw calmed everyone down. Things looked bad, but it wasn't a catastrophe. The Irish needed to grab more rebounds (center Jessica Shepard had one in the first half), keep the 6-foot-7 McCowan off the offensive boards (she had three of Mississippi State's seven), then get out in transition -- their strength all season.
"We couldn't get rebounds, we couldn't get stops, and their defense was stifling," said Mabrey, the point guard who had seven of her nine turnovers in the first half. "It was really hard to get the ball in. I felt like they were everywhere. We were all over each other, and no one could see anything.
"So I said at halftime, 'Everybody stay in their spots. It's our job to get open. Let's do our job and let everybody else do their own job.' Once we were able to just get some space and be able see the floor a little bit better, their pressure really wasn't as bad as they were making it seem."
Shepard opened the second half with a layup, and Mabrey converted a Mississippi State turnover into a driving layup plus a foul shot. But over the next few minutes the Irish had trouble finishing inside as Mississippi State extended the lead to 40-25, its largest margin of the game.
But Notre Dame kept at it, ending the quarter on a 16-1 run to tie it at 41. Ogunbowale, Friday night's buzzer-beating hero but coming off a 1-for-10 first half, had nine points in the quarter to Shepard's six, with Shepard grabbing three rebounds, two offensive.
Shepard noticed the difference right away.
"In the first half we were letting them kind of get to us, letting the pressure get to us," Shepard said. "Coming into the game, we knew they were a pressure and defense team. We needed to be running, getting out, getting rebounds and loose balls.
"That was the big thing coming in at halftime. We weren't running the offense. That's why we were in that situation. So when we came out in the second half, we wanted to make sure our team offense was good. The biggest thing for us was the defensive rebounds, limiting them to one shot."
McGraw also instructed Jackie Young and Ogunbowale to handle the ball more while Mabrey shifted to the wing. "I think we were able to get some rebounds and get going a little bit more in transition," McGraw said.
One more worry: The Irish, going with only six players because of injuries, still hadn't hit a 3-pointer. "I was like, 'I can't make 3, can you? No? OK, so everybody go right down the middle and drive it to the rim,' " said Mabrey, Notre Dame's most prolific 3-point shooter. Mabrey finally hit Notre Dame's first of the night and her only one with 1:35 to play, giving her 19 in the tournament, three short of Kia Nurse's 2017 tournament record.
"We were looking for Jess inside, and my player left me," Mabrey said. "Jess just kicked it to me, and I was like, 'OK, Marina, it's time. You really need to make this.' So I got lucky.
The Irish made only one more 3-pointer -- Ogunbowale's game winner from right wing. That delivered Notre Dame's seventh double-digit comeback victory of the season, third in the past four games and second at this Final Four.
Shepard, the transfer from Nebraska cleared to play just before the season, shot 8-for-10 from the field for a game-high 19 points, plus six rebounds. She finished with one more point than McCowan, who fouled out with three seconds to play. Westbeld grabbed nine rebounds. And the Irish shot 57.1 percent from the field in the fourth quarter, making 8 of 14 attempts.
"They just put their head down and drove it to the rim," Mississippi State Coach Vic Schaefer said. "That happens sometimes. Our defense is so good, that's basically what they did. They went to the rim, and they went inside."