“What Though the Odds,” Pt. 1

This spring marks the fifth anniversary of Notre Dame’s incredible run to the 2018 national title, one of the most memorable sports moments in years. This two-part series serves as a retrospective on the 2018 season. 

I wonder how many people can trace the origin of their sports fandom.

Maybe you remember going to your first baseball or soccer game as a little kid and loving the atmosphere or the ballpark hotdogs. Maybe you remember your first time watching a hockey game or the first time you grabbed a tennis racket with your friends. But my guess is for many people, their favorite sport has kinda just always been there, weaving throughout their life in ways that would be hard for them to clearly identify. 

Football is like this for me. I really can’t remember a time where I wasn’t a Notre Dame football fan. It’s always been there. I don’t remember my first time watching a football game (though I do remember being really confused about what a first down was at about age four), and I can’t remember a time without the sport’s presence in my life. There was never a clear time when I became a football fan. 

But basketball? That one’s easy. January 18th, 2018, with 5:01 to play in Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame vs. Tennessee. 

If you’ve followed Notre Dame basketball for any length of time, you probably remember this game. Heck, you might even remember this play, although you may not know the time on the clock or the date. Given everything that followed this moment in the 2018 season, this has become a bit of a touchstone for Irish basketball. Everyone, from Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw on down, points to this game as the turning point of the 2018 season. 

Up until this moment, I had been passively interested in basketball. I had maybe attended one or two ND games as a kid, watched the odd bit of pickup on the school playground, spectacularly failed at learning to shoot in gym class. My main experience had been inconveniently-timed high school pep band games, a three-plus hour weeknight ordeal that somehow always feel the night before a big test or during peak South Bend winter weather. My high school teams were, fine? I can’t clearly remember. We weren’t a big player by any stretch in boys or girls, but we could win some games. The point of those evenings for me, though, was the band, not the basketball. 

At Notre Dame, band members can choose either hockey or basketball band for their pep band assignment. When the time came for me to pick my freshman year, I didn’t have much to go on — I didn’t closely follow either sport, even though I had by default spent more time watching basketball. At least the motions of basketball were familiar. If I knew nothing about basketball, I knew less about hockey. So basketball band it was.

I was familiar, of course, with the basic contours of Notre Dame basketball — a perpetually disappointing men’s team that flashed occasional moments of brilliance, most recently on the cusp of breaking through to a Final Four with back-to-back Elite Eight runs, and a dominant women’s team that was pacing everyone in the county not named the University of Connecticut. I knew the coaches — Mike Brey with his fun-loving uncle persona and Muffet McGraw with her combination of fierce competitiveness and quiet confidence. I could even name a few recent great players — fun fact, Skylar Diggins went to my middle school — but that was really the extent of my knowledge. I was lucky I knew what the three-point line was. 

To this point in the season, there had been some fun moments for both men’s and women’s teams. This was the year of the famed “Maui Brey” celebration and the men climbed as high as #5 in the polls, before promptly losing to Ball State at home. The women, meanwhile, largely blasted their way through nonconference play, including a combined 51-point margin against Big Ten teams from the state of Michigan; the only blemish was a road loss to those pesky Huskies. Aside from said Ball State fiasco I thankfully was not present for, both teams were winning big at home. My freshman, basketball-illiterate self was loving every moment of it. 

There was an undercurrent to all this, though — the Irish had been piling up injuries up and down both rosters. On the men’s side, untimely injuries to veterans Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell doomed any chance of making a real run in the ACC. The team would finish 8-10 in conference and be confined to the NIT. But this was nothing compared to what the women’s team faced. 

The ‘17-’18 squad’s rotten injury luck really started in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, when All-American forward Brianna Turner tore her ACL in the second round. Turner, arguably the team’s defensive anchor and a key piece on the floor, was essential to the team’s regular-season success, and while the Irish were able to make the Elite Eight without her on the floor, they bowed out in that round to Stanford. Rather than try to rush back for the next season, Turner chose to rest for the year and make sure she was as healthy as possible before returning to basketball. 

Knowing you’ll be down an All-American going into the season would be rough enough on its own, but then the Irish lost another veteran, Mychal Johnson, in the preseason, also to an ACL. True freshman Mikayla Vaughn, a post player who would otherwise get major minutes without Turner available, tears hers just six games into the season. 

And then, on New Year’s Eve, Stanford transfer and starting point guard Lili Thompson went down with yet another torn ACL, making four players on the roster with the same injury. It’s like the team’s been hexed by a vengeful knee fairy. While the healthy Irish players are still plenty talented, having an already short rotation and now being forced to play without a true point guard means the team will have an uphill climb against the best teams they play. 

It all came to a head with a trip to conference rival Louisville just a week before this Tennessee game. The Cardinals handed the Irish their worst loss in recent memory, a 33-point drubbing with the added indignity of giving up a hundred-burger. The team’s razor-thin rotation meant the Irish had to adjust their preferred hard-nosed defensive style, lest the players available get in foul trouble early. This needed adjustment ran headlong into a Louisville team finding its offensive rhythm, as the Cardinals shot an incredible 65% from the floor. 

It looked like the same script was unfolding in South Bend this night. Tennessee jumped out to a massive early advantage, with the Irish unable to contain their top-ten opponent’s offensive output. The Irish got down by as many as 23, and trailed by 17 after just one quarter. They managed to cut the lead down to 12 by halftime, but the Vols still had a clear advantage. 

It looked like this just wasn’t the women’s year. Too many injuries, a short rotation, and the lack of a true point guard were starting to catch up with them. They could still win most of their games, but when it came to playing the big dogs, they had one hand tied behind their back. Maybe they could make a decent run in the tournament, but it was clear this wasn’t really a contending team. 

Then little by little, things started to turn around. The signs of life in the second quarter were followed by a 12-7 run in the waning minutes of the third to knock the deficit down to 10 — but not enough to make the game winnable. And then the fourth quarter started.

Notre Dame came out on a mission in the last quarter of play, locking in defensively and shooting 60% of the field to go on a 15-5 run. All of a sudden here Notre Dame was, having dug themselves out of a 23-point hole to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame gets a stop and rushes back down the floor. The Irish work the shot clock and find a look they like — Marina Mabrey open for a three-point shot from the corner. If this is good, Notre Dame will take its first lead since the first quarter.

As I would come to learn, a Mabrey shooting a corner three is usually money. This one sure was. 

I’m still not sure my hearing’s fully recovered from the explosion that ripped through Purcell Pavillion as that shot went in. Women’s games are usually better attended than men’s at ND, but this was a particularly packed house for a top-ten matchup. Watching the home team complete a 26-point swing sent the place into delirium. Energy levels — both in the building and in my body — were off the charts. 

Hey, you know what? This basketball thing’s kinda cool. 

I’m gonna tip a little bit of a spoiler here, if you don’t already know. About two and a half months from this corner three, this team’s gonna win it all. It will do it in about the most dramatic fashion possible, overcoming some of the longest odds of any recent national champ in women’s basketball. But the fact of winning it all isn’t the point. 

The magic of this team is in its journey. Their banner is made all the more special by how it got in Purcell Pavillion’s rafters. Perhaps no team in recent memory was counted out more along their journey to a title, and usually for good reason. At so many points in their run it looked like Notre Dame was out of it — and it was at those moments they refused to concede. This title was won by excellence, yes, but also by sheer force of will. 

It was one of those special title runs that every sports fan dreams of being a part of. At five years since Notre Dame cut down the nets in Columbus, it’s worth taking some time to appreciate it. 

And to me, personally, this team is far more than just a title team. I stumbled my way into their path at just the right time in my life for them to have an impact on me I still can’t quite put into words. In some ways, these two essays are a multi-thousand word attempt to do so.

I say this unequivocally — I would not be a basketball fan if it were not for this team. You already know my passive interest in basketball before this season; it’s safe to say I’d still be there if this team didn’t pull me in to their game. Very firmly but gently, like a big sister, this team said to me “you will like this sport. Here, let us show you how.”

And boy, did they. 

Now, let’s be clear — this isn’t a Cinderella story. This isn’t VCU making the Final Four or Sister Jean or St. Peter’s beating Kentucky or any of your favorite March Madness underdog stories that inevitably end in heartbreak. Notre Dame is absolutely a big dog on the national scene. 

For starters, the Irish haven’t missed a Sweet Sixteen since 2009, and extended those NCAA Tournament runs five years running between 2011 and 2015. That makes seven overall Final Fours, good enough for fifth on the all-time leaderboard. And they dominate in the regular season as well — since joining the ACC in 2014, Notre Dame has only lost twice in-conference, and captured both the regular season and conference tournament titles each of their four years. Even this year, as shorthanded as they are starting conference play, they’ve leaped out to a 5-1 conference record, and most games haven’t been close.

With Brianna Turner sidelined, the Irish are anchored by a pair of junior guards — Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale. Mabrey, the second of three sisters to play for Notre Dame, has taken over the lion’s share of point guard duties midseason. Mabrey has always been an excellent shooter, known especially as a three-point ace, but has developed her assist and dribble-drive game recently. 

Ogunbowale, meanwhile, leads the team in scoring. A true 2-guard, Arike can score easily at all three levels and plays with an incredible intensity. Just as likely to drive to the rim as to kick out for a jump shot, she is wicked on a fastbreak, nearly impossible to stop when she gets a head of steam. She can be somewhat of a streaky shooter, but she is able to pick her spots and deliver for Notre Dame when needed most. Mabrey may take most of the point guard duties, but there’s a strong case Ogunbowale is the team’s emotional leader. 

Notre Dame’s become known for its standout guards, so its no surprise that there’s a third guard who makes noise on the court for the Irish — Sophomore Jackie Young. Young is as complete of a guard, especially this early in her career, as you can find; an Indiana native, she holds the state’s all-time high school scoring record for boys or girls basketball. But she’s not just a scorer, just as likely to dish an assist or grab a tough rebound. Young could anchor most teams by herself, but with a backcourt this stacked there’s an argument she’s the third option. 

There’s a critical piece the Irish didn’t sign out of high school as well — transfer forward Jessica Shepard, out of Nebraska. Shepard has been an absolutely essential pickup with Turner out. Normally, Shepard would have to sit out a year, but given how shorthanded Notre Dame is, they mount a strong case for immediately eligibility. Just a scant few hours before the team tipped off the season, Shepard was granted eligibility by the NCAA. It’s been a godsend — Shepard has been critical for the Irish, scoring and rebounding with ferocity of a lion. She’s evolved into one of the better passing post players in the country, and considering the the talent around her, that’s a crucial skill. 

Shepard’s frontcourt partner, Kathyrn Westbeld, is a veteran presence inside and a classic “glue player.” Her stats aren’t eye-popping on the surface, but she is absolutely a crucial piece of this team, with an ability to finish tough at the rim or dish off to a scoring partner. With Turner sidelined, Westbeld serves as the defensive centerpiece, and combines to form quite the formidable tandem with Shepard. 

As good as the starting guards are, there are essentially no backups in the backcourt — Ogunbowale, Mabrey, and Young will play almost all the available minutes. If one rests, they will probably be replaced by a post player, where the Irish do have some depth. Kristina Nelson, a fifth-year graduate student, can provide a spark, especially on defense, and gains the most time of the available bench players. Danielle Patterson and Kaitlin Cole mix in at the post from time-to-time as well, but in most game action this is a six-woman rotation. 

And at the center of it all is newly-minted Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw. McGraw has become synonymous with Notre Dame basketball, steering the program from the days when the Joyce Center resembled a high school gym into a national powerhouse. She has brought more basketball success to this campus than anyone ever has, almost willing her team into a level of support and prestige only exceeded by football. As well respected off the court as on it, McGraw’s leadership has been steady through an otherwise tumultuous time in Irish athletics — she started during the early Holtz era, and has seen the football program go through a roller coaster ride and the rest of the school join both the Big East and the ACC. Joined by a veteran coaching staff — her former point guard Niele Ivey, former player Beth Cunningham, and her longtime lieutenant Carol Owens — McGraw has this program humming. After three decades at the helm in South Bend Muffet is closing in on eight hundred wins with the Irish, and her postseason success is remarkable. There’s that national title in 2001, of course, but the Irish have become mainstays deep into March, with McGraw making the Final Four more than all but two active coaches. 

Even with some key pieces out, it’s a formidable group, riding a legacy of success few in the country can match. But is it formidable enough to give Notre Dame a second national title?

So let’s flip back to that Thursday night in South Bend. Notre Dame used the momentum it had built to pull away from the Vols, and ended up outsourcing Tennessee 34-10 in the final frame. It wasn’t just that the Irish posted the largest comeback in program history, but that they won comfortably. A 23-point hole turned into a 14-point win. That’s a 37-point swing against a top-ten team. The Irish weren’t gonna be defined by their injuries; they were here to compete. 

Notre Dame can not only win, they can win big. 

I was such a basketball noob back then I didn’t even grasp that playing Tennessee was a big deal. Everything I had absorbed in my teen years was all “UConn UConn UConn;” Tennessee had faded from their run of dominance under Pat Summit. But they still have an aura to them, like playing Notre Dame in football. And for the Irish, which had struggled with beating the Lady Vols throughout its history, this win sparked something in the team. Rather than consign themselves to another Louisville-esque outing, Notre Dame found a way to unleash the best version of themselves. They’d sustain that moment all the way through the end of the year. 

After that comeback against Tennessee, Notre Dame really hits its stride in the regular season. They don’t lose a game the rest of the way, with no opponent getting closer than 14 points in the final margin. The Irish capture a share of the ACC regular season title for the fifth straight season, though it feels a bit hollow given the other share belongs to the same Louisville team that beat the Irish.

It’s impressive how much the Irish are winning, and how much they’re winning by. Notre Dame carries this momentum into the ACC Tournament, comfortably winning the first two rounds to set up a rematch with Louisville in the final. This outing, the Irish go blow-for-blow with the Cardinals; Jessica Shepard, who has turned into a double-double machine down the stretch, posts 14 points and 10 rebounds to go with Ogunbowale’s 20 points. But it’s not enough, as clutch free-throw shooting ices the game for Louisville. Notre Dame falls 74-72, their first ever loss in the ACC Tournament. It’s a stinging way to go out, but just the team’s third loss of the season overall; only UConn and Louisville, both of which should be #1 seeds come the NCAA Tournament, have managed to best Notre Dame, even as shorthanded as they are forced to play. 

But this is college basketball. We know where the story of a team is written. 

Let’s turn the calendar to March. 

Notre Dame’s excellent work over the regular season has earned them a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the accompanying right to host the first two rounds of the Big Dance. That’s a big advantage for any squad, but particularly for the Irish, who have won twenty-three straight at Purcell Pavillion. Though they are a top seed, Notre Dame is the last team on the seed line, meaning they will have a marginally tougher path than their fellow #1s. For starters, their region features the fifth overall seed #2 Oregon, featuring a dynamic offensive attack headlined by future #1 WNBA draft pick Sabrina Ionescu. What’s more, if the Irish and the Ducks do meet in the Elite Eight, they’ll meet in Spokane, Washington — about a days’ drive from Eugene, but across the country from South Bend. And should the Irish advance to the Final Four… well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. With this tight of a roster situation, making the Final Four would be a tremendous accomplishment by itself; Notre Dame has missed it twice in a row, so getting back there shorthand would be impressive. 

The Irish have never quite been able to play the style of defense they want, though they are solid on the defensive end. Still, they focus on outsourcing and outrebounding opponents more than getting straight up stops out of necessity. Notre Dame has so many potent scoring options on the floor that when they are playing together, they are very difficult to effectively defend. Most opponents can’t outscore them, and only a precious few have managed to shut down the Irish even for short stretches. It’s every bit the dominance we’ve come to expect from Notre Dame over the past several years. But in March, when depth and rotations start to matter more, can this shorthanded team go deep in the tournament?

The Irish start their run against an overmatched Cal State Northridge squad and largely uneventfully overpower them, displaying the offensive chemistry and power that’s become their trademark. The Irish do get in a moderate hole early, letting CSUN jump out to an 8-2 lead, but then wouldn’t ya know it it’s suddenly 55-32 ND at halftime. Notre Dame continues assisting, shooting, and driving with ease to post a 99-81 final. Of note though, is an apparent leg injury to Kathryn Westbeld. The injury doesn’t look serious, but Westbeld is held out as a precaution against the Matadors. It doesn’t matter for today’s game, but Westbeld’s health is obviously a concern going forward.

After winning a thriller against South Dakota State in overtime, Villanova advances to draw the Irish in the second round, playing for a Sweet Sixteen berth. If Notre Dame wins it will be the program’s ninth straight tournament making the second weekend. 

Their old Big East foes prove to be a tougher matchup than the Matadors two days earlier, with the Wildcats shooting the lights out from three to start the game. It doesn’t help that the Irish often concede wide-open looks, with a normally solid defensive alignment clearly missing Westbeld. The two teams trade blows throughout the first half, with only a late bucket from reserve player Kaitlin Cole tying the game for the Irish at halftime. 

Just as it looks like the Irish might be in a fight for their season on their home floor, Kat Westbeld returns to the game to thunderous applause. Her impact is felt immediately, as the Irish hold Villanova to 8 points and only three field goals in the 3rd quarter. The Irish offense, meanwhile, hums along, posting 28 points in the third frame to all but put the game away. The Wildcats got no closer in the fourth, so McGraw is able to pull and rest Westbeld with just over four minutes to play. Notre Dame cruises the rest of the way. 98-72 is the final margin as the Irish barnstorm into the second weekend. 

In the first two games of the tournament, the Irish have seen three players score over 20 points; before the first round Notre Dame hadn’t seen that kind of production since 1999. It’s a solid foundation for the trip to Spokane and the Sweet Sixteen. 

Notre Dame’s regional semifinal opponent is an old tournament nemesis that spoiled the end of a potential title run — Texas A&M. The Aggies’ lone national title came at the expense of the Irish in 2011, ending what had been a remarkable run for the first team ever to beat Tennessee and Connecticut in the same tournament. 

The Irish have one of the strongest backcourts in the country, but the Aggies have a standout of their own — Chennedy Carter is an offensive firework, capable of scoring from almost anywhere on the basketball court and one of a scant few players in the country that can go toe-to-toe with Notre Dame’s star guards. The Irish would have their work cut out for them defensively even at full strength; if they get into a shootout, Notre Dame can keep up, but can they contain Carter when they need to?

The teams play a back-and-forth first quarter before A&M seizes the advantage behind Carter’s hot shooting, stretching their lead to 12 early in the second quarter. At one point, Notre Dame finds itself down 13 and its season on the verge of slipping out of reach. But Notre Dame’s gotten down big before; as if on cue, the Irish rip off a 9-0 run to get the game back to a couple possessions. By halftime, they are only down two — and even that doesn’t last long, as Marina Mabrey hits her sixth 3-pointer of the game to tie it just over a minute into the third. Notre Dame manages to create just a bit of separation by the end of the quarter, taking a five point lead into the final frame. 

Arike Ogunbowale has proven time and again this season to have a strong clutch gene, and it shows here as well. Ogunbowale leads the team in fourth quarter scoring and drops seven in the first four minutes. A Young layup stretches the lead to 9, but A&M responds with a flurry of three-straight 3-pointers to knock the Irish lead down to three (lot of “three” in that sentence). Just in time, a Westbeld jumper from the free-throw line creates some separation, and the Irish close it out, 90-84. Notre Dame is averaging over 95 points a game in the NCAA Tournament so far. Outscoring opponents so far has not proven an issue. With the top line scoring, assisting, driving, and defending in tandem, it’s clear this team really likes playing basketball together — and they aren’t ready for their season to end yet.

On to the Elite Eight it is, then, for the ninth time in program history. Notre Dame is 7-1 in the quarterfinal round, and is one of only two schools to make seven Elite Eights in the 2010s. The Irish do draw their anticipated matchup with the Oregon Ducks, who had a decent case for claiming the top seed over the Irish. Can Notre Dame outscore a team known for dynamic offense? 

As expected, the Ducks fanbase has turned out for their team and their budding young superstar Ionescu — it’s not a true road game by any stretch, but the arena definitely tilts towards the Ducks.Notre Dame goes blow-for-blow with Oregon through the first half, matching the Ducks’ offensive output with big shots of their own. But as they have for the past two games, the Irish find themselves in a pickle at halftime. They haven’t trailed by a large margin like against the Aggies, but they do surrender a 20-9 run to give the Ducks a 46-40 halftime lead. 

Notre Dame responds, as they have done every third quarter in this tournament, marvelously. They lock in on defense and hold Oregon to under 20% shooting to close the quarter on a 15-4 run. Notre Dame’s firepower starts to wear down the Ducks — the Irish scoring doesn’t always come easy, but it comes. All game, they have dominanted the Ducks on the boards, cashing in on a staggering 26 second-chance points to pull ahead. And Kat Westbeld, who had the pull-ahead shot to beat Texas A&M, a senior eager to get back to the Final Four for the first time since her freshman season, leads the team in scoring with 20. At one point in the fourth quarter, the Ducks get it down to two — but that’s as close as they get. Notre Dame matches every Duck bucket the rest of the way. It’s a team effort to get the Irish distance down the stretch — tough interior defense, great post passing and driving, and strong rebounding. The lead is six, then eight, then ten. 

As the waning minutes of the fourth quarter tick by, it becomes clear — Notre Dame, featuring a razor-thin rotation and more ACL tears than losses, will play in the Final Four. 

The final buzzer in Spokane sounds as the Irish dribble out the clock. Something between relief and euphoria sweeps through the Irish sideline as it dawns on everyone Notre Dame is dancing right on into the final weekend of the season. McGraw and her assistants embrace in a bear-hug — they’ll have a chance to compete for that second national title once again. 

That makes two straight comebacks, and three straight second halves where the Irish have outscored their opponents when they had to or they were staring at the end of their season. Not the easiest road to the Final Four, but in the end the Irish are cutting down the nets at the end of a regional final for the eighth time in program history. 

Muffet McGraw, after missing the Final Four for two straight years with far healthier teams, has righted the ship and gotten the Irish back to the biggest stage in the sport. Managing this short of a rotation would be a difficult enough coaching job on its own, but to barnstorm through the regular season and make the Final Four? Incredible. Short of McGraw’s title in 2001, this is the best coaching job she’s done in an illustrious, Hall of Fame career.

The Irish are the last regional to play, and the pattern has held across all four — the #1 seed in each region has served the gauntlet of the early rounds to advance to Columbus. It’s only the fourth time in the history of the women’s tournament this has happened. All three other #1s have sailed through their rounds, with none posting a margin of victory under 13 points. Notre Dame, having already seemingly done the impossible in playing their way to Columbus, will have their work cut out for them if they want to go any further. There’s no Cinderella run this year, no team who hasn’t clearly separated themselves from the competition. These are, without question, the four best teams in the country. 

Those four teams would go on to play one of the greatest Final Fours of all time. 

Regional championship trophy in hand, nets cut, confetti dusted off uniforms, the Fighting Irish turn their attention to the next opponent. Their first national semifinal in three years will come against…


Of course.

It’s them. It’s always them. 

Why is it always them?

It’s gotta be fate. There’s no way this just happens, right? Not this often. No way random chance results in this outcome this routinely. 

For a staggering seventh time, Notre Dame will face archrival Connecticut in the Final Four. 

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