Last year, Arike Ogunbowale was the hero. The Notre Dame guard hit a leaning 3-pointer against Mississippi State to enshrine herself in tournament history and win the NCAA title. It was an absurdly difficult shot, the kind you’d remember for years if you made it in an empty gym, let alone during the biggest game of your life. So when Ogunbowale stepped to the line on Sunday against Baylor, the task at hand seemed pretty straightforward by her standards: Hit both free throws, and send the title game to overtime.
After she missed the first attempt, Ogunbowale appeared calmer than anyone else in the arena. She communicated with the bench that she was going to intentionally miss the second one and give the Irish a chance to rebound and score. There was a solution to this problem, just as there was last year against Mississippi State. But this pragmatic thinking was undone by an accident: At the worst possible moment, Ogunbowale couldn’t miss. Her swish put the score at 82-81 with 2 seconds remaining, and Baylor completed a simple inbounds to win its first NCAA title since 2012.
After the final whistle, Ogunbowale left the court in tears.
That someone who’s already achieved career-defining glory can still feel this kind of pain is evidence of the fact that, in sports, everything is fleeting. It’s also a reminder for us normal people that, even though we can’t console ourselves with fresh memories of buzzer-beating heroics, losing still feels terrible no matter what.
Notre Dame would have liked its chances in overtime. The Irish overcame a 17-point deficit to take a late lead, and momentum was on their side. Star Baylor forward Lauren Cox had left the game with a serious-looking leg injury in the third quarter, and the title was there for the taking. “When you lose a big time player in the middle of national championship game, you’re not supposed to win,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said afterwards. Were it not for Chloe Jackson, she would have been right. The Baylor guard scored two huge baskets in the final 35 seconds, including the go-ahead layup.
Jackson scored 26 points and was named the title game’s most outstanding player. She had never even played point guard before transferring to Baylor this offseason, but Jackson somehow managed to learn the game’s most demanding position in time to be a hero on the biggest possible stage. A lot can happen in a year.