WE LOVE YOU, IRISH
Umm yeah. We have a bit to talk about. Last night, the Fighting Irish played their national semifinal at the Final Four in Columbus, OH. Given all of the injuries that the Irish have sustained (4 ACL injuries this year), just making it to the Final Four was one of the best accomplishments ever. Given the grit and passion the team had to get to this point, we knew they had the will, but did the have the skill to continue on. The next opponent were the UConn Huskies. Yeah, that team. We have a pretty heated rivalry with them, but they were also 36-0 this season going into this game. They are insanely good and talented, and this was a tough task. The Irish were tougher, and found the correct ways to utilize their skills and expose a few of UConn’s sparse weaknesses. We all know that we did the damn thing to beat them (thank you, Arike) and that I’m still downright giddy after the win,but let’s take a little look as to why things happened as they did last night.
The Irish came out HOT. It seemed that they were out for blood. From the onset, it was looking like the Irish were not going to let this game be out of hand with a pretty classic and typical UConn blow out. By the under-5 minute timeout in the first quarter, the Irish had aa 13-6 lead on UConn. The Irish were getting great looks especially for Arike Ogunbowale and Jackie Young. Mostly shots were from inside the arc and in the paint as well. Of course, Jessica Shepard, like always, was getting into the mix. Additionally, and this happened all game, Muffett and staff drew up a hell of a defensive scheme against the Huskies. We were forcing them off their normal lanes, impeding cuts, and never stopping moving around. We were a pain in their side for most of the game. We forced bad 3 point shots as well, as the Huskies started 0-6 from 3-point land. After all of that, it was 24-14 at the end of the first quarter.
It was a little bit different in the second quarter. This was shaping up to be actually a classic UConn performance. They went on a 27-10 run in the whole quarter, and it was a 27-6 run for most of the quarter. They started to figure out our defense (we had to switch from zone to man-to-man a few times). UConn started to take better shots while we went a bit cold. Gabby Williams led the way for the Huskies in the second quarter, as we still did a better job of overall limiting katie Lou Samuelson, the Huskies’ leading scorer this season. That also equates to UConn being a bit more stifiling on defense. After all of that, though, we were only down 41-34 at the half. This was becoming a battle.
We did not panic after halftime. The Irish becanme poised and sustained a calm demeanor after halftime. This was pretty par for the course for this tournament. After being tied with Villanova in the second round, and down to both Texas A&M and Oregon in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8, the Irish have been in this position pretty much for the whole tournament. We kept it close and kept it interesting, still causing problems for UConn so that they could not build upon a huge lead. With Jackie and Arikie leading the way, we took a lead, lost the lead by only a couple of points, and found ourselves only down 60-57 entering the 4th quarter. A huge upside was our defense, holding the Huskies to 19 points in the third quarter. Additionally, throughout the whole game rebounds at opportune times helped to keep us alive. The Irish were out-rebounded by the Huskies overall, but I thought we stepped up when necessary, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
The battle continued into the fourth quarter. It was very up and down. Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield both hit huge shots from all over the floor to put the Huskies up by 8 points. Arike and Jackie helped us put the Irish within striking distance. Eventually, Arike took great shots and hit free throws to put us up by 5 points with 21 seconds left. It was looking like our poise and will would prevail.
However, UConn got a huge 3 from the corner, made by Collier. After that, the Irish called a TO to advance the ball to the front court. However, the inbound from Shepard was haphazard, and Kia Nurse stole it to take an easy and uncontested layup to tie the game. It was chaotic and shocking. Next, Shepard took a pass that she mishandled. The ball goes off her leg and out of bounds. 3.6 seconds left and UConn has the ball. They get an excellent look for a short shot to win, but it falls short at the front of the rim. We go to OT in a ridiculous 15 seconds of basketball. Tie game at 79 all.
OT ended up being ours. We shook off the fact that we blew that lead to win. We controlled most of overtime with poise. We took the ball to the paint, and even though we missed the shots, we were in the bonus, so all fouls had us shooting and making the necessary free throws. We go up 89-84, 5 points yet again. However, two shots 9 seconds apart led to a tie game. After UConn had to foul, Arike actually missed both of her free throws. Dangerfield was definitely dangerous from the field, and she knocked down a tying 3-pointer with 29 second left.
We inbound the ball and call our final timeout to advance the ball. I was nervous for this because we had just messed this same situation up in regulation. However, we got the ball to Marina Mabrey and then to Arike. She dribbled around and worked her magic. The rest is something you have no probably seen about 1000 times. We won’t get tired of it. Arike steps back just inside the perimter. Hand in her face, and she drains the shot with 1 second remaining! UConn inbound the ball and actually gets a decent look to tie, but the shot falls short again. The Irish win and slay the dragon!
Aftermath, Celebration, and What Is To Come
Euphoria. Jubilation. Pride. Immense happiness. Whatever you want to call last night, that was what it was. This team. I love this team. So much adversity. However, the players never want to give up. The coaching staff, led by AP Coach of the Year, Muffett McGraw, never quit. They wanted so badly to succeed, and they did. With our performance and with Arike’s shot, UConn goes home with a 36-1 record on the season. A second season in a row ending in the national semifinal. A second season in a row with giving up a contested shot in OT. It has been a crazy ride.
Hats off and much applause to the whole Irish team, but especially to Arike and to Jackie. Arike hit the shot and had 27 points. Jackie, though, had THIRTY-TWO points. Flat out ridiculous. She created space for herself and took excellent shots. Two more years of her on the team is something to be insansely happy about.
I am so proud of this team. They have been fighters, and they deserve this. We finally exorcised the UConn demon after a few years. Yes, there was much celebrating, as I was just a tad excited.
And just because we can’t get enough, here is the shot again:
Now, however, the job isn’t done. There is one more game left. Last night, Mississippi State beat Louisville, so the Irish will play the Bulldogs for the national championship. The game is tomorrow, Easter Sunday, at 6 PM on ESPN. I love it.
Thank you to the team, to the Irish fans, and to everyone who believes. We did it, but we still have more to do to complete the job. Go Irish. Beat Bulldogs.