Unlikely buzzer-beating shot brings unlikely title for Muffet McGraw's resilient Fighting Irish

Notre Dame wins title on Ogunbowale's 3-pointer (2:06)

The Fighting Irish overcome a double-digit deficit in the second half and Arike Ogunbowale nails a 3-pointer in the final second to give Notre Dame their first national championship since 2001. (2:06)

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- After a season in which much of what was talked and written about Notre Dame's women's basketball team involved injury misfortune, look at who was the last team left standing.

The Irish won the program's second NCAA title with a 61-58 victory over fellow No. 1 seed Mississippi State on Sunday, an Easter to remember for coach Muffet McGraw, whose 800th victory at the school was one of her sweetest.

"She had to fight for this; she had to do the most coaching she has ever done in a season here," junior guard Marina Mabrey said in a jubilant Notre Dame locker room at Nationwide Arena. "I'm just really happy we were able to give her a national championship."

In her 31st season at Notre Dame, McGraw followed her team's 2001 NCAA title 17 years later -- to the day -- with one that, realistically, seemed more than a bit unlikely.

Wait, you say, how can a No. 1 seed winning a championship be unlikely? Well, mostly because the Irish kept having to overcome disappointments in regard to players being hurt. Going back to last year's NCAA tournament, they'd lost four to ACL injuries, including senior point guard Lili Thompson on Dec. 31.

And they had to overcome double-digit deficits in both the national semifinals against UConn on Friday and the final against Mississippi State. Sunday's comeback was the seventh time this season that the Irish have rallied from a double-digit deficit, and they're the first team to do that twice in winning the championship.

The Irish were down as many as 15 points Sunday, the largest deficit any team has overcome to take the title game.

The Irish also had to have clutch, last-second shots from junior guard Arike Ogunbowale, who was named the Final Four's most outstanding player, to win both games in Columbus. And they got them.

McGraw was in the arena watching in Richmond, Virginia, back in 1994 when North Carolina's Charlotte Smith made a 3-pointer with seven-tenths of a second left to give the Tar Heels the national championship over Louisiana Tech 60-59. That has long been the most famous 3-pointer in women's college basketball history.

"That was a phenomenal shot, and there haven't been too many more like that," McGraw said. But Sunday, one of her players hit one just about as big. Smith's shot took North Carolina from losing to winning; had she missed, Louisiana Tech would have been celebrating the title. Had Ogunbowale missed, Sunday's game would have gone to overtime, just as the two semifinals did Friday in what was, overall, an epic Women's Final Four.

But Ogunbowale hit it, one of many things that actually did go right for Notre Dame in what turned into a truly magical season, regardless of the injuries.

They even got an assist from the NCAA, which gave a waiver to forward Jessica Shepard to play this season, rather than requiring her to sit out the standard one year after transferring from Nebraska.

Shepard was an enormous help to the Irish all season, and really came through in the championship game with 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field, plus six rebounds. And she helped defend Mississippi State center Teaira McCowan, who still had 18 points and 17 rebounds but fouled out in the closing seconds.

Notre Dame's injuries gave the Irish a short rotation, but they made it work. Lack of depth contributed to Notre Dame not being quite the defensive team McGraw is accustomed to, but ultimately that didn't matter. The offense was so good it carried the Irish all the way to the title.

That was the case Sunday even after Notre Dame's worst offensive quarter of the season, as the Irish were limited to three points in the second quarter and trailed 30-17 at halftime. It was just another opportunity for them to get back up off the canvas.

McGraw has often referred to Notre Dame's 23-point comeback to win against Tennessee on Jan. 18 -- its biggest rally in program history -- as the turning point in this season. But the seeds for that were planted with the Irish's worst-ever loss a week earlier, when they fell 100-67 at Louisville.

"We weren't concentrating in practice and doing what we needed to do," Mabrey said of what led to that defeat. "I had just taken on the point-guard role [after Thompson's injury] and I had no idea what I was doing.

"And we gave up in that game, which was really, really, really disappointing. I think it took that, and losing to them again in the ACC tournament, to know, 'They're not better than us. Actually, no one's better than us, but we keep on beating ourselves.'

"Coach said to us before the NCAA tournament started, 'Make somebody beat us.'"

The Irish had lost four national championship games since winning in 2001, falling to Texas A&M in 2011, to Baylor in 2012, and to UConn in 2014 and '15. Coming so close without winning is hard on a coach, but McGraw always seemed able to keep perspective.

"I think I define success as achieving your potential," she said. "We've had a couple of those years where we got to the final that I really felt like that was one that got away. There were probably two of those."

One that stung in particular was in 2011. The Irish had become the first team to defeat Tennessee and UConn in the same tournament that year, and point guard Skylar Diggins was a sophomore emerging as a major star. The Final Four was in Indianapolis, just 2½ hours from Notre Dame's campus. The Irish had ended UConn great Maya Moore's career in the semifinals, and seemed poised to claim the title. But they fell 76-70 to the Aggies.

They beat UConn again in the semifinals in 2012, but then lost the final to a Brittney Griner-led Baylor team that went undefeated that season. That wasn't as painful because, as McGraw said, "Really, there was no way we were going to beat that Baylor team."

In 2013, the Irish defeated UConn three times -- twice in the regular season and in the Big East tournament final -- before falling to the Huskies in the national semis.

The other year that McGraw said was tough to take for the Irish was 2014. They had moved to the ACC in 2013-14, so they didn't face UConn until the national championship game, when both teams were undefeated.

However, the Irish had lost senior post player Natalie Achonwa to an ACL injury in the Elite Eight. They were still able to beat Maryland handily in the national semis but didn't have enough firepower in a 79-58 loss to the Huskies.

"It seemed like, at times, 'Are we cursed?'" McGraw said.

In 2015, the Irish edged new Final Four team South Carolina in the semis, 66-65, but then lost again to UConn in the final, 63-53. Plus, not long after that game, star guard Jewell Loyd surprised McGraw in bypassing her senior season and declaring for the WNBA draft, which she was eligible for because of her age. She ended up being the No. 1 pick. The next year, without Loyd, the Irish fell to Stanford in the 2016 Sweet 16.

They appeared a strong bet for the 2017 Final Four as a No. 1 seed but lost standout forward Brianna Turner to an ACL injury in the NCAA tournament second round. Still, they had a 16-point lead against Stanford in the Elite Eight, but the Cardinal rallied to win 76-75.

Ogunbowale had a shot blocked at the end of that game. And although she's the Irish player McGraw said tended not to hold onto any memories of past games, it had to feel especially good for her to be the one who in this Final Four came up with two of the biggest shots in Notre Dame history.

At the ACC tournament in March, McGraw said she thought Ogunbowale deserved the ACC player of the year award, an assertion that didn't sit well with Louisville coach Jeff Walz. He was upset that McGraw didn't refer to the winner of the award, the Cardinals' Asia Durr, by name when she was making her case for Ogunbowale. Then Walz decided to bring that up with McGraw during the postgame handshake after the Cardinals won the tournament.

If that irritated McGraw, which it surely did, she kept it to herself. She always has been someone who manages her emotions well, although she said she has had to learn to manage players a little differently over the years, including focusing more on what they do well, rather than what they do wrong.

"Less sarcasm," she said, smiling. "More positive reinforcement. This generation is a little different. They can be tough, though, mentally. Which we needed."

McGraw has said this group reminds her of the 2001 Irish champions, mostly because of their resilience. That Ruth Riley-led team didn't have any depth, either, but it played well as a unit, and beat UConn and Purdue in the Final Four.

In September of that year, McGraw made a late change on a flight reservation for a recruiting trip. The plane she was to have been on, United 175 out of Boston, crashed into the South tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

So ever since, 2001 has been a year like no other for McGraw and her family, who had one of their highest highs with the NCAA title, but also missed a tragedy.

Wednesday night here in Columbus's art museum at the dinner for the Final Four teams, McGraw checked her coat. She looked at the number on her ticket, and immediately showed it to her husband, Matt. It was 201 -- not 2001, but close enough for McGraw to take it as an omen.

"Yes, I believe in things like that," she said chuckling. "That was finally a good sign."