TAMPA, Fla. — This time there were no last-second heroics for Arike Ogunbowale and Notre Dame. No amazing shot at the buzzer. No jaw-dropping highlight to vault her to another ESPY award and Notre Dame to a repeat title.
This time the ultimate big- moment player came up short in the most mundane of ways. Ogunbowale missed a free throw in the final seconds as Baylor defeated Notre Dame, 82-81, on Sunday in the women’s NCAA Tournament championship game.
Baylor (37-1) was able to beat the defending national champion despite blowing a 17-point lead and losing one of its star players to an apparent knee injury in the third quarter.
Chloe Jackson, who was voted the tournament’s most outstanding player, drove past three defenders to hit a layup that gave Baylor an 82-80 lead with 3.2 seconds left. Notre Dame called a timeout and inbounded the ball to Ogunbowale, whose buzzer-beater in last year’s game lifted the Irish to the title.
Ogunbowale was fouled driving to the basket. She missed her first free throw and made the second, even though she was trying to miss it so the Irish would have a chance to get the ball back. They never did.
It was the third title for Baylor, capping a near-perfect season that featured a single loss to Stanford way back in December. Kim Mulkey joined Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma and former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt as the only women’s basketball coaches to have won at least three championships. Mulkey also won national titles in 2005 and 2012.
“The old school won a national championship,” she said. “I don’t know what old school is, but I know how to win.”
A victory would have put Notre Dame (35-4) in an exclusive club. The Irish were attempting to become the fourth school to win back-to-back titles, joining USC, Tennessee and Connecticut.
Jackson had 26 points and Kalani Brown added 20 points and 13 rebounds. NaLyssa Smith added 14 points.
Ogunbowale ended her college career with 31 points.
“I mean, it’s tough. It’s tough,” she said of the miss. “You can’t really do anything about that one.”
She and her teammates seemed to be a state of shock as Baylor poured onto the court.
“The game didn’t come down to that free throw,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who failed in her bid to win a third championship. “I mean, the game was 40 minutes. There were plenty of mistakes we made throughout the game that caused us to lose, most notably the first quarter. Just didn’t come out ready.”
What had been a dominating performance by Baylor in the first half underwent a dramatic momentum shift after Lauren Cox was injured in the third quarter.
Cox, who had been a fearsome inside presence, got her leg tangled up with Brown underneath the basket. Her teammates clearly were rattled to see her sobbing as she was carted off the floor with 1:22 left in the third quarter and Baylor leading 62-50.
“When she got down, we got a little rattled,” Brown said, “but then we had to pull it together and do it for her.”
Said Mulkey, “We controlled that game until she went down. We had to regroup and we did. I had to make them understand we were going to still win this basketball game and we did.”
Notre Dame hadn’t had a lead in the game since early in the first quarter, but the Irish usually play their best in the fourth quarter, and now they didn’t have Cox to contend with.
Notre Dame tied the score at 74 with 5:18 to play when Marina Mabrey hit three three-pointers in a two-minute stretch.
Notre Dame fell into a hole early, missing 12 of its first 13 shots, and didn’t look like a defending champion or a team full of seniors at the start of the game. The Irish never got closer than 10 points in the second quarter and finished the half trailing 43-31.
The Bears entered the championship contest without having lost since they fell at Stanford, 88-63, on Dec. 15. They seemed to get stronger as the tournament went on. In their five tournament games heading into Sunday night, they beat opponents by an average margin of 31.6.
On Sunday, they proved they also can win a close one when everything is on the line.