Associated Press Arike Ogunbowale and her Notre Dame teammates celebrate their national championship in April. After hitting game-winning shots in the semifinals and finals, Ogunbowale became a celebrity. Now she's refocused on basketball.
Thursday, November 08, 2018 1:00 am
Ogunbowale back for more
Final Four hero puts celebrity to rest as Irish focus on repeat
REGGIE HAYES | For The Journal Gazette
First came the improbable: Arike Ogunbowale hit back-to-back game-winning shots in the NCAA Final Four, the second delivering the Notre Dame women's basketball team the national championship.
Then came the surreal: Ogunbowale's shots led to an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” where DeGeneres set up a meeting with former NBA great Kobe Bryant. Ogunbowale also participated on “Dancing with the Stars,” where a new audience met her and embraced her engaging personality.
“A lot of older women recognize me and say, 'You're the girl from 'Dancing with the Stars,'” Ogunbowale said. “To some people, I'm a dancer. To some people, I'm a basketball player.”
It was a whirlwind of thrills and celebrity.
“She was probably the only one who could have handled that,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said.
“It's been cool. It's been a good experience,” Ogunbowale said. “A lot of different things happened. But it didn't change me.”
Now it's time for an encore.
Bu what in the world can the 5-foot-8 senior guard do for an encore?
How about another NCAA title?
“We're definitely not satisfied,” Ogunbowale said. “We want to try to repeat. We know we have a bigger target on our back.”
Ogunbowale's and Notre Dame's charmed postseason run, which hit its climax with Ogunbowale's game winners against perennial champion Connecticut in the semifinals and Mississippi State in the championship game, raised expectations this season. Her championship-winning shot won an ESPY for best play.
Many of the players who were part of the 35-3 Irish return, including four starters in Ogunbowale, Marina Mabrey, Jackie Young and Jessica Shepard.
Much of the attention and responsibility for the team's success falls on Ogunbowale. She led the team in scoring (20.8 points per game) and brings a contagious swagger. But Notre Dame is loaded with talent. The other three starters were also reliable scorers: Shepard 15.6 points, Young 14.5 and Mabrey 14.4. Brianna Turner, who averaged 15.3 points two years ago, returns from a knee injury.
McGraw is most excited about Ogunbowale's appearance in one arena: practice.
“She has stepped up her work, and she's always worked hard,” McGraw said. “But she's at another level in the way she's worked. She's great as a role model, especially to the freshmen. You can just tell she's playing at another level.”
Assuming that's the case, it's a testament to how grounded Ogunbowale is, because she could easily have reacted to her postseason attention with an “I've arrived” attitude and perhaps even gotten lost in the celebrity treatment. After all, she became the face of women's college basketball and took it a step further with her mainstream entertainment 15 minutes of fame on “Dancing with the Stars.”
“It was a lot tougher than I expected it to be,” she said. “I had to learn a lot of different dances. It was definitely a challenge.”
She has great memories from that bonus side of her NCAA achievement.
“My parents got to go out there a couple times to California to the show and stuff like that,” she said. “It was pretty amazing.”
Ogunbowale says things are “definitely back to normal, back to school, back to business” now.
With her renewed work ethic, she believes there are facets of her game where she can improve, including shot selection and defensive tenacity. The Fighting Irish ranked 256th in scoring defense last season, so that's a teamwide emphasis.
Ogunbowale's dedication to the game, to hard work and to her team makes her a formidable leader.
“She's fearless,” McGraw said. “That's the biggest thing. She's strong and she's put in a lot of work really honing her game. If she misses a shot, she's not going to worry about it. She's going to focus on what happens next. She's always focused on the next play.”
Every season, Ogunbowale has come back and improved her game in certain ways, McGraw said, both physically and in her understanding.
“You always want your best player to be your hardest worker,” McGraw said. “Our younger players look up to her and they really respect and admire what she's done. To see her be the hardest worker in the gym means a lot.”
As Ogunbowale looks back on where she's been since Notre Dame's incredible championship run, she could pick out numerous highlights and experiences.
The one that stands out reveals much about her approach.
“A lot of different things happened, but to bring the trophy back to South Bend was something that everybody hopes to do,” she said. “That was the most rewarding.”
She'd love to do deliver an encore performance.