How Arike Ogunbowale Saved March Madness

The basketball universe works in beautiful ways.

Geno Auriemma’s UConn project has completely changed the scope of women’s college basketball. The Huskies’ dominance spans more than two decades, but the sustainability of their greatness has meant that since 1995, only seven other universities have enjoyed the glory of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball championship. The brilliance embedded in the UConn system has rendered them one of the most influential college sports programs in the history of the NCAA. And yet, some in the sports media world continue to question the Huskies’ legitimacy, pontificating about their merciless, uncompetitive tendency to annihilate. The Huskies obliterated St. Francis by 88 points in the first round of the Tournament; in 2017-18, their average margin of victory was 36.1 points. Rather than marveling at the abilities of these women and celebrating the miracle of UConn’s dynasty, sports personalities–notably, men–choose instead to complain. Pointing to Auriemma’s relentless perfectionism and vilifying him for running up scores and being a “bad winner” is a disservice to the players who have worked tirelessly for their achievements. Accusing UConn of being “bad for women’s basketball” is a classically sexist, fundamentally baseless claim which not only turns its back on every non-UConn player but also serves to write off the entire NCAA Women’s Tournament.

So, to put it concisely, Arike Ogunbowale showed up at the right time.

On March 30th, UConn put a 36-game winning streak on the line. The Huskies missed the 2017 championship game, eliminated in the Final Four on a thrilling, emotional overtime buzzer-beater by Mississippi State’s Morgan William. Desperate for vindication, UConn faced off against their toughest competition of the season: the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, looking for their own revenge after a tough loss at Connecticut the previous November.
Notre Dame pushed UConn to the limit. They kept up with the Huskies, anticipating their scoring runs, locking down on the perimeter, and exhausting the 6-woman rotation. Napheesa Collier led the Huskies with 24 points on 11-17 from the field, but Kia Nurse and Crystal Dangerfield’s poor shooting performances left the Huskies at a dead end. Behind mini-runs from Jackie Young and Arike Ogunbowale, the Fighting Irish forced overtime.

In the extra period, UConn threes fell when the Huskies needed them to; Notre Dame, on the contrary, penetrated the paint. Locked up at 89 with 14 seconds to go, the Irish put the ball in Ogunbowale’s hands. Up to 25 points on the night, Ogunbowale let off a tightly contested, off-balance fadeaway with a foot on the three-point line. It didn’t look like a great shot, but it was the best the Irish could manage. Spiting keen defense by Collier, Ogunbowale’s high-arcing Hail Mary defied UConn’s dominance, and physics–it went in. And while UConn had a chance to tie with one second left, the book had closed on them. Arike Ogunbowale defied the apparently insurmountable odds: she lifted her teammates past the unbeatable Huskies, scoring a ticket to the championship game, and ending UConn’s season in a dramatic repeat of the year before. So much for ruining women’s basketball.

Kobe Bryant loves women’s basketball, as he should. His daughter Gianna is a budding star, and avid UConn fan; Kobe, Gianna, and eldest daughter Natalia can often be found courtside at WNBA games. But in Nationwide Arena on March 30, the Bryant family was treated to (or, more likely, devastated by) Ogunbowale’s game-winner, which Ogunbowale herself attributed to Mamba Mentality.

Later that night, when Bryant caught wind of Ogunbowale’s inspiration, he issued her a challenge: finish the job. Unlike the preseason demands he made of NBA stars Isaiah Thomas, DeMar DeRozan, and Giannis Antetokounmpo in August 2017, Ogunbowale actually came through.

On April 1, the Irish took on Mississippi State in the title game. Like poetry, the only two teams to defeat the UConn Huskies in two years–that’s 74 games–would fight for the NCAA Women’s crown. Things looked bleak for the Irish at halftime, trailing 30-17 after scoring just three points in the second quarter. Ogunbowale rallied the troops, scoring nine of Notre Dame’s 24 in the third, outscoring the Bullies by 13; the game was tied heading into the fourth.
Down 58-53 with less than two minutes to go, the Irish kicked into another gear. Marina Mabrey hit a three; Jackie Young tied the game with a jumper. It looked like both teams were headed to a second consecutive overtime (Mississippi State had taken Louisville to extra time on March 30, and won by 10). But Arike Ogunbowale was ready to go home, trophy in hand.

On a shot somehow more improbable than the UConn winner, Ogunbowale knocked down a wild corner three, flying away toward the baseline. Before you could blink, it was over: superhero Arike Ogunbowale did it again, ushering in the second of two years of heartbreak for Mississippi State, and the first NCAA title for Notre Dame in 17 years.
Arike stole our hearts and the tournament. Praise from fellow Nigerian-American star hooper Chiney Ogwumike, and celebration from NBA greats like Dwyane Wade and DeMar DeRozan put Ogunbowale at NCAA’s center-stage. The NCAA Tournament has never seen such an incredible pair of clutch moments from one player, and according to SB Nation, Ogunbowale’s consecutive Final Four game-winners are perhaps the most “incredible feats we have ever seen”.

Arike Ogunbowale didn’t just take the NCAA Tournament and make it her own. She dominated, and earned the spotlight. The men’s Final Four and championship games were so substantially unentertaining that, on April 2, many bored Tweeters wondered if Arike would mind making an appearance for Michigan, just to spice things up a bit.

No way, no how. Arike’s job was finished. And if you missed out because you seriously believed that UConn ruined women’s basketball, we hope you’ve learned your lesson.

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