LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Stanford's Erica McCall hit her first shot against Texas and never looked back. Which means she can look ahead to an opportunity to play for a place in the Final Four.
Notre Dame sophomore Arike Ogunbowale missed her first shot against Ohio State. And her second and third shots. Not to mention her fourth shot. And all she looked for was a fifth shot. She too will play Sunday in Rupp Arena for a chance to go to Dallas.
A little confidence can go a long way this time of year.
Fueled by 32 points from Ogunbowale, who hit 11 of her next 18 shots after those four early misses, No. 1 Notre Dame beat No. 5 Ohio State 99-76 in Rupp Arena to reach a regional final for the sixth time in seven seasons. Playing a full game for the first time without injured All-American forward Brianna Turner, out for the remainder of the tournament with a torn ACL, Notre Dame scored more points than it had ever scored in an NCAA tournament game. Playing without a player who remains irreplaceable, the Fighting Irish nonetheless produced six double-digit scorers.
That means the Fighting Irish will play Sunday against the Cardinal, the same opponent that ended their season a year ago in the same arena in the Sweet 16. Led by McCall's 23 points and 12 rebounds, Stanford beat Texas 77-66 to reach its 10th regional final in the past 14 seasons.
In unusual casting for a No. 1 seed, Notre Dame was the team that took the court in Lexington with the most question marks. The Fighting Irish lost Turner to injury in the second round and then nearly lost the game on its own court against Purdue. They were the unknown quantity.
"It was long," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of the week that culminated in Friday night's contest. "I felt like we practiced for about two weeks before this game. I just felt like we were in a little bit of a funk. We were trying to make some changes, and we're going to try some new things and how we're going to guard. We're just on napkins and envelopes and paper, trying new things. And we ended up doing a lot of the same stuff."
But there was no reticence, no lack of confidence from Ogunbowale when she came out shooting against the Buckeyes. There just weren't any made field goals, either. Not for a few minutes. The breakthrough came fortuitously: a loose ball that squirted across the lane to her and allowed her a clean look at a layup. Conventional basketball wisdom would suggest it was the kind of shot that can give a cold shooter some confidence.
Which would be fine, if Ogunbowale ever lacked for it in the first place.
"I don't really care about shots I miss," Ogunbowale said. "I just know I got to keep shooting it. They're going to fall eventually. And that's what I kept doing."
She didn't stop because of a few early misses. She didn't pause when she banked in a jumper from the top of the key -- unintentionally. She didn't doubt when a 3-point attempt wedged itself between the rim and the backboard like a dart in a dartboard -- albeit far from the bull's-eye.
"I don't think I've ever seen Arike not confident," Notre Dame senior Lindsay Allen said when asked if anything in life tested that trait. "She wakes up and just oozes confidence."
That isn't quite true. There are those rare moments that give even Ogunbowale cold feet.
"Probably every single accounting test ever," Ogunbowale said.
Granted, she said it with a confident laugh.
But Notre Dame needed that confidence after a long week. There was a small moment before the game, just after the national anthem. Ohio State's Shayla Cooper, making her way through a crowd of Fighting Irish players to her side of the court, didn't alter course as she approached Ogunbowale. The Notre Dame player didn't move either. There was a small collision, a brushing together and a sidelong glance that Cooper cast as she continued. Going through a drill with her teammate, Allen just smiled and said a few words to Ogunbowale.
"If someone is talking about us or someone tries to mentally faze her or try to be rough with her, she's going to give something back," Allen said. "They were talking and doing all that stuff all game. So it was just cool to see Arike step up to the challenge."
Notre Dame didn't play like a damaged team. It played instead like a confident team, from Ogunbowale to freshman Erin Boley. A highly decorated recruit, Boley returned to the state in which she was three times the high school player of the year as something of a spare part for the Fighting Irish. She played just seven minutes in the win against Purdue. But it was Boley who took Turner's place in the starting lineup. Boley who hit 4 of 6 3-point attempts with a confident stroke. And Boley who battled the Buckeyes for nine rebounds and even saved a possession by hustling to the sideline and throwing the ball off an opposing player.
She played like someone who was the No. 5 recruit in the nation.
"There's been a lot of highs and lows," Boley said. "It's an adjustment, for sure, and it has been a progression. But I think it is slowly coming along. It's sort of a balancing act coming in as a freshman. There's lot of different little things that happen. But it's a mental thing: It has a lot to do with toughness. For me, it was just figuring out where I fit in with this team."
While not nearly as traumatic as Notre Dame's week, Stanford didn't have the easiest go of it. The lone top-four seed unable to play at home in the first two rounds, the Cardinal decided against a planned return to campus between rounds after their plane encountered mechanical problems leaving Manhattan, Kansas. They spent the week on the road, which meant the road was where McCall took a cognitive neuroscience final exam. She had papers to write too, the last one not finished until hours before the game against Texas.
"I didn't want our season to end," McCall said. "I love spending time with them. I had finals all week, so I didn't get to hang out with them. I wanted another game to just hang out with them for another weekend. So we've got to keep it going."
After all, if McCall has reason to be confident anywhere, it is here in Lexington. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer calls Rupp Arena "The Bird's Nest," in honor of a player nicknamed "Bird." McCall torched Notre Dame here a year ago in the Sweet 16, hitting 12 of 18 shots, and she did the same to Texas by hitting 9 of 14 shots. Several of those were second-chance baskets, with McCall's six offensive rebounds almost single-handedly securing an advantage on the boards for the Cardinal that VanDerveer made the team's No. 1 priority.
It is unlikely anyone would say McCall oozes confidence, and not just because Stanford kids would break something else out of the thesaurus. More than confidence, she exudes calm, even as she barrels into the big bodies in the lane. Her coach called her the third Ogwumike sister, which says it all.
"I don't really know about her confidence," VanDerveer said. "But I have complete confidence in her. That's what I tell them: 'I really don't care about your confidence in yourself. I care about my confidence in you.' I have complete and total confidence in her because she never lets you down. She always battles. She might miss a couple of shots. [Defensively] it was a little like, 'Who are you guarding out there?' But you can talk to her. She wants to win so bad."
McCall isn't part of a team trying to figure out what it is, just a team that wants to be what it is for a while longer.