COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The difference this time was it felt as if it was going to go in. It had to go in.
As Arike Ogunbowale's shot cleared the UConn defender's outstretched hand and arced high toward the basket, it felt as if Notre Dame had already won. Morgan William's shot a year ago felt possible, as if just maybe there was enough magic in the air that night to accommodate the last-second winner that completed Mississippi State's upset and ended UConn's record 111-game win streak.
Ogunbowale's winner Friday didn't just feel possible. The shot that eliminated unbeaten and top-seeded UConn in a semifinal for the second consecutive season felt downright probable by the time it was in the air.
Ogunbowale said she knew the shot that secured Notre Dame's 91-89 win, a long jumper from a step inside the 3-point line on the right wing, was good as soon as it left her hand. That wasn't enough confidence for Marina Mabrey, the Notre Dame point guard who has tried to defend that same shot countless times in games of one-on-one.
"I knew it was good when she got on the island and cleared everyone out," Mabrey said. "I knew it was over for whoever tried to guard her."
But it wasn't bravado that made it feel like a foregone conclusion by the time it was on its way.
Too much had come before for any other ending. Notre Dame overcame too much in the game to fall short in that manner. It overcame too much this season. It overcame too much, period.
It turns out we were all looking for the wrong redemption story all along. It wasn't UConn coming back from one loss a year ago. It was Notre Dame coming back from every opportunity to give up on this season. And this game.
Notre Dame played six players Friday. It dressed more, but that was basically all it had to offer after four ACL tears took key piece after key piece, starting with All-American Brianna Turner. Friday's five starters scored 89 of the team's 91 points, including 27 by Ogunbowale and 32 by Jackie Young. That was the third time the starting five scored at least 89 points in this year's NCAA tournament.
There have been 57 other games played in the tournament. Starters accounted for 89 points in only two of them.
Playing all season with a shortened rotation yet never shedding its up-tempo style, Notre Dame didn't necessarily have to become mentally tougher than everyone else. But it did if it wanted to play into April. The Fighting Irish weren't going to be deeper than opponents. They weren't going to be fresher in the fourth quarter.
But the Irish didn't endure the adversity, they were shaped by it.
"Jesus, we wouldn't even be in the game in October," Mabrey said. "That's why I love this team. We have so much growth. We keep getting better every day. And everyone is so accepting to learning and so accepting of criticism. We just say 'OK, coach, I got it, I'm going to do that next time.' I feel like [Muffet McGraw has] had had to do so much more coaching this year, but it makes it so much better."
The difference between Friday's game and UConn's win over Notre Dame in the regular season was supposed to be personnel. The Irish no longer had Lili Thompson, the now-injured point guard who was a handful for the Huskies in that game and when she previously played for Stanford. And UConn had Gabby Williams and Katie Lou Samuelson at full strength, each limited in the first meeting. So even though the Irish led by double digits in the fourth quarter of that game, logic held that was a better shot at the upset than they would have Friday.
That didn't account for Young, the sophomore who was plagued by foul trouble when the teams met Dec. 3. Unbowed by the surrounding Friday, the Irish jumped to as much as a 24-11 lead in the first quarter. The Huskies came out flat -- coach Geno Auriemma at one point telling his assistants that Samuelson was sleepwalking through the opening quarter -- and Notre Dame punished them for it. No one more than Young. Unsure of her offensive role a season ago, she looked confident on a mix of drives to the basket and midrange jumpers that produced 32 points to go with 11 rebounds.
As Auriemma noted, everyone found out how good a player Young can be.
"You live and you learn," Mabrey chuckled. "She can do it."
UConn tightened the defensive screws in the second quarter and went on a run that erased its own deficit and opened a double-digit lead. Notre Dame, in turn, answered in the second half, never quite coming up with an answer for Azura Stevens inside but chipping away until the fourth quarter. Just like a year ago, it became a see-saw.
That appeared to run its course when Ogunbowale hit two free throws to put Notre Dame ahead by five points with 21 seconds in regulation, but UConn hit a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 79-77. With Notre Dame's Jessica Shepard attempting to inbound the ball at midcourt, Kia Nurse jumped in front of Mabrey, stole the pass and tied the score with a layup. Another Notre Dame turnover even gave the Huskies a chance to win, but Gabby Williams missed a final shot.
Taking a lead on UConn was one thing. Getting back into the game in the second was one thing. But keeping their heads after giving away the upset in 21 fraught seconds was the biggest test of the Irish's toughness.
"I was upset because I had dropped the ball, and that was a mental mistake on me," Mabrey said of the huddle between regulation and overtime. "But everyone is looking to the point guard, and they're going to see me down? We're still in the game. There were five minutes left. I was like 'My bad, we're fine.' "
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Ogunbowale made sure she was right. That was her own redemption.
Go back to last season. To an empty convention center hallway adjacent to Rupp Arena and Ogunbowale pacing in frustration after a one-point loss against Stanford in the Elite Eight. A sophomore at the time but the offensive centerpiece after losing Turner to injury, Ogunbowale's last-second shot was blocked by Stanford's Erica McCall after the Irish blew a 16-point lead.
McGraw said Ogunbowale came back as perhaps the team's most improved player, a more mature offensive player, the kind who passed up a decent pull-up jumper in the first half to feed Young for a high-percentage layup.
"The beginning of the game, she was struggling to find her shot," McGraw said. "But she never got down. She came back at the end of the half, she came back at the end of the third quarter. And then the end of the game, there was no question who the ball was going to."
With no timeouts and the memory of the end of regulation disaster still fresh, Young successfully inbounded the ball to Shepard moving toward the basket with 14 seconds left and the score tied at 89. Shepard's path to a layup or a clean look blocked, she swung the ball to Mabrey on the opposite side of the court from where the ball had been inbounded. At this point, the play as outlined during the timeout went out the window.
McGraw said the plan was to get Ogunbowale a chance to go one-on-one and drive to the basket. Ogunbowale said there were several options as to how, none of which involved what actually happened, as she nearly collided with Mabrey in her hurry to go get the ball.
"OK, Gabby is guarding me, she's quicker than me," Mabrey recalled of her own thought process as the clock hit single digits. "I can score right now, but I really am not on right now. I'm not the hot hand. Arike was looking at me, and I knew it was Arike's time to shine. She's a one-on-one player -- not that I'm not a one-on-one player -- but I felt like she was getting hot, she was getting going.
"I felt like it was the best shot for us for Arike to score."
Never mind that Ogunbowale had just missed two free throws with 38 seconds left that allowed UConn to pull even on a Crystal Dangerfield 3-pointer, one of so many big shots on a night when no one could suggest the Huskies gave the game away. Mabrey, McGraw and everyone in green still wanted Ogunbowale to take the shot.
"I just came to get it," Ogunbowale said. "My team trusted me and something good came out of it."
That something good came out of this season, with all Notre Dame endured, was a surprise.
"I didn't think we'd have more ACL tears than losses," McGraw said.
That the last shot Friday went in for the team that got that far? That hardly felt like a surprise at all.