Banners hanging from the Nationwide Arena ceiling this weekend attest to the exciting 36-year history of the NCAA’s involvement in the Women’s Basketball Final Four. There have been some thrilling games over the years for sure. Most recently last year’s semi-final, in which Mississippi State ended UConn’s 111-game win streak on Morgan William’s buzzer beater, provided a shocking finish that looped on highlight reels even during the run-up to this year’s Final Four. Having witnessed a couple of Final Fours recently (New Orleans and Nashville) where UConn runaways made the final game anti-climactic, I’d decided to skip the trip to Dallas in 2017. But that Morgan William shot convinced me that I needed to be in Columbus in person in 2018. Just in case.
Columbus, Ohio didn’t seem like an exciting venue for a Final Four, but the arena was packed, and the place was rocking for the semifinals Friday night. My thoughts went back to the first time the tournament was held in Ohio (Cincinnati in 1997). That was the first time I had ever attended the Final Four in person. My sister and I sat almost directly behind the Stanford bench and watched as Old Dominion provided the overtime heroics with a come-from-behind victory over Stanford, 83-82. Guard Ticha Penicheiro scored 18 points in that game, including the game-winning free throw. For the final game, we watched Pat Summitt coach the Lady Vols to a 68-59 victory from behind their bench. The Lady Vols came back from a first-half deficit to win that game with Chamique Holdsclaw (only a sophomore) scoring 24 points. The other notable thing about that tournament (besides it being the first for us) was the fact that all four coaches were women: Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, Old Dominion’s Wendyu Larry and ND’s Muffett McGraw, something local newspapers trumpeted as the wave of the future.
This time around my sister and I sat high above center court in Columbus, and noted that McGraw was the only female hoping to coach her team to a national championship. Mississippi State’s Vic Shaefer, UConn’s Geno Auriemma, and Louisville’s Jeff Walz were all given more of a chance to win the national title than McGraw — mainly because McGraw’s squad would have to beat UConn in the semifinal to make it to the final game. Her team also had the shortest bench, having lost four players to ACL tears this year — including Brianna Turner, whose 263 blocks in the first three years of her career (not to mention the 14.5 points per game and 7.5 rebounds) had made her the biggest name at Notre Dame since Skylar Diggins had graduated in 2013.
The UConn-Notre Dame game was the second of the night. Mississippi State had provided the heroics in game one, which featured 15 lead changes in regulation. Leading by 1 and with the ball, Louisville had scored an uncontested layup with only a few seconds on the clock. My sister turned to me and said, “They might regret taking that shot,” and sure enough, MSU’s Roshunda Johnson hit a huge 3-pointer to tie the score and send the game into overtime. There they dominated the deflated Cardinals and earned their spot in the Finals by a 10-point margin.
When the second semi-final started, we didn’t give Notre Dame much of a chance, even after they went out to a pretty good 13-point lead at the end of the first quarter. But when UConn came roaring back and was actually up by 7 at the half, we decided to leave our balcony seats (and the incredibly obnoxious UConn fans in front of us) to find a better place to watch the second half. By the time we found our new seats (in the Elevator Restaurant down the street), Notre Dame had come roaring back to tie it. We and the other restaurant patrons watched on the big screen over the bar and roared as the Irish’s Arike Ogunbowale hit the game-winning shot to send UConn to defeat.
Most women’s bball fans know the rest of the story. Another Arike Ogunbowale three-pointer gave Notre Dame the well-deserved championship against Mississippi State on Easter Sunday night. Many MSU fans bemoaned the officiating, but the officials missed a lot on both sides. Mississippi’s Teaira McCowan had gotten away with her share of travels on rebounds and put-backs in the post. As had been the case in all three games, the winner had to put aside all the distractions and make the big time shot when they needed it. That’s what the Fighting Irish did.
Parity is a word that gets tossed around a lot when people complain about how women’s college basketball isn’t as exciting as the men’s version. But we left the arena, as Notre Dame was cutting down the nets, feeling as if we really had watched the best Final Four ever. It was Muffett McGraw’s 800th win and second national championship (The last one was in 2001). To say we were glad we were there to witness it is a bit of an understatement. That we’ll be in Tampa for the 2019 Final Four also goes without saying.