Arike Ogunbowale’s famous game-winner at the buzzer over the mighty UConn Huskies earned Notre Dame a spot in the final at the NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament.
It was easy to get caught up in such a thrilling moment, but the final loomed.
“We were super excited. We were all up ‘til, like, 4 a.m. after that,” Ogunbowale said of the team’s celebratory mood after the semifinal game. “I couldn’t go to sleep, it was crazy. We really had to try to make it short-lived excitement because we still had the national championship in what, 48 hours? So we couldn’t focus on that win and let it be the highlight of our season.”
But Ogunbowale managed to eclipse the feat with another buzzer beater in the final. Falling with just 0.1 seconds left, the shot won them the championship, 17 years after the school’s first women’s title. It easily could have been the highlight of Notre Dame’s season as they struggled through the first half of the final. The Fighting Irish trailed Mississippi State 30-17 after the second quarter, in which they managed to score an NCAA championship record low of just 3 points.
“I think we were really focused for the game, but I don’t know,” Ogunbowale, a junior, said of the final. “Our energy level was a little low to start the game. We’ve played better second halves throughout the whole year. Even though we were down, we were never really worried. We came out good, but then second quarter, we just got out of our rhythm.”
The team refocused and regrouped before the third quarter, reminding themselves they had been in that position before.
“We’ve been down by more before. So let this not affect us. It just matters how we come out third quarter. I mean, they could’ve blown the lead to like 20-something if we didn’t come out hard. We knew we had to cut into the lead or the game could’ve been away from us.”
But the Fighting Irish came back 36-18, winning the game 61-58 thanks to Ogunbowale’s buzzer-beater. And the play very nearly didn’t come together.
“The play was initially for Jessica Shepard, for them to throw it to her in the post,” Ogunbowale said. “She was having such a dominant game, we wanted to throw the ball to her. I talked to our guard, Jackie Young. She was taking the ball out and she was like, ‘If I don’t think I can give it to Jess I’m gonna pass to you.’ There was a screen supposed to be set in the play already, so I just came to the ball. I knew I only had three seconds so I took a couple dribbles and shot it.
“It just happened!”
In the aftermath of the shot, Ogunbowale’s total social media followers across Instagram and Twitter increased by more than 213 percent between the semifinal on March 30 and the day after the final, April 2.
Ogunbowale gained instant fame after leading her team to the victory, including making the cover of Sports Illustrated and an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” And in true DeGeneres fashion, there was a surprise for Ogunbowale involved — meeting her idol, Kobe Bryant.
“It was super fun. Not everybody can say they’ve been on Ellen. And Ellen is such an inspirational person with everything she does for people. And so I think it was an honor and a blessing to be able to be there. Just, with Ellen alone, and then to be able to meet Kobe Bryant, that was crazy.”
Ogunbowale, who named her dog Kobe and wears No. 24 in Bryant’s honor, was gifted two signed jerseys: one for her and one for the canine Kobe.
DeGeneres and Ogunbowale took on Bryant and rapper/actor Ice Cube in a 2-on-2 game. Ogunbowale put up the only shot of the 90-second game to secure the victory.
Bryant first noticed Ogunbowale after the tournament semifinal, when her buzzer-beater knocked UConn — a Bryant family favorite — out of the tournament. After being recognized by Bryant on social media made Ogunbowale feel like her life was “complete,” Bryant reminded her in another tweet to “finish the job” in the final.
Like Bryant, Ogunbowale has played internationally for USA Basketball. She even has a 3-on-3 gold medal from the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, on her resume. Team USA was undefeated throughout the Youth Olympic tournament, winning 13 straight games. Her time with USA Basketball, dating back to 2013, has taken her to six countries.
Her Team USA career isn’t over yet, either, especially with the introduction of 3-on-3 basketball at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“I love 3-on-3 so much,” she said. “It’s so fun to me. I think it’ll be great for it to be at the Olympics and give more players a chance to make the Olympics.”
Would she choose the new discipline over the traditional tournament?
“Hopefully, I’m blessed enough to be in the conversation to be chosen. I’ll be pretty young. But if I’m chosen for either, I’m not sure. I’d love to be on either.”