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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

Jessica Shepard, Arike Ogunbowale prove to be powerhouses of Irish offense in win over Aggies

CHICAGO — It’s a remark the Irish coaching staff has dropped a number of times to compliment Jessica Shepard: “We don’t win the national championship without Jess.”

And now they can amend that statement slightly: We don’t get past Texas A&M this year without Jess — and Arike.

The first half of the game was all about the senior forward who transferred from Nebraska last season. Shepard entered Notre Dame’s Sweet 16 matchup with the Aggies (26-8, 12-4 SEC) averaging a double-double, with 16.7 points per game and 10 rebounds per game. She didn’t let the statisticians down. Shepard had sealed the deal on her 16th double-double of the season by midway through the third quarter.

Irish senior forward Jessica Shepard goes up for a layup during Notre Dame's 87-80 win over Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 at Wintrust Arena in Chicago on Saturday.
Irish senior forward Jessica Shepard goes up for a layup during Notre Dame's 87-80 win over Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 at Wintrust Arena in Chicago on Saturday.

The game was a back-and-forth, neck-and-neck affair from the get-go, as the Irish lost the tip — a rare occurrence with senior forward Brianna Turner controlling tipoffs.

With a bit of a sluggish start, the Irish offense, which averages 89 points per game, turned to Shepard, who took it upon herself to start the scoring for Notre Dame (34-3, 14-2 ACC), as the Irish were down by three over three minutes into the game — borderline uncharted territory for the squad.

The 6-foot-4 forward scored 11 points in a row for Notre Dame, getting the Irish up to a 15-13 lead with just over a minute to play in the first quarter.

“I think we knew our offense would get going at some point, so I think in the first quarter, they did a great job of getting me the ball and then just finishing strong inside,” Shepard said of her strong start to the game.

However, it did not end there for Shepard. She continued to roll, adding four more points in the second quarter and nine in the third.

But Shepard’s lone weapon Saturday was not her ability to post up — the big also recorded six rebounds in the first half and eight in the second, turning up the heat for the Irish on the boards. She assisted on three blocks and dished out six assists.

“We had some nice interior passing today, too. I thought Bri made some really good cuts, Jess made some really good passes. I was really pleased with the big guys today,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said of her bigs.

McGraw continued to rain down praise on Shepard, whose double-double was her eighth in 11 games.

“I thought Jessica Shepard with the double-double, she was unstoppable down low,” McGraw said of her senior’s performance.

While it was Shepard who got the Irish offense rolling in the first quarter and kept the pedal to the metal throughout the game, senior guard Arike Ogunbowale refused to be outdone. Some people just shine brightest on the biggest stages.

“The bigger the moment, the bigger she plays,” McGraw said of Ogunbowale. “She’s not afraid of a big moment by any means. There were a lot of times we were just running stuff for her, and we ran a lot of sets for her, and she responded incredibly well. She has just got that mentality of, ‘I want the ball in a clutch situation,’ and she’s not afraid to miss.”

Ogunbowale’s self-proclaimed “Mamba Mentality” was on full display down the stretch, as she entered the second half with 10 points and exited with a career high.

One of the more clutch moments in Ogunbowale’s drive to the Elite Eight came when the game was tied at 69 with 6:57 remaining. The 5-foot-8 guard heaved a 3-pointer to put the Irish up. Ogunbowale then proceeded to steal the ball from Aggies sophomore guard Chennedy Carter at halfcourt and win a footrace to the basket, making the layup and putting the Irish up by five.

“She made big shot after big shot, and when we really needed them. She had a huge 3,” McGraw said. “The steal Arike got at halfcourt for the finish, that was big. But Jess was there that whole game.”

From there, the Irish momentum only built, even as Ogunbowale was called for a technical foul with under a minute remaining in the game.

Irish senior guard Arike Ogunbowale goes up for a layup over an Aggies defender during Notre Dame's 87-80 win over Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 on Saturday at Wintrust Arena in Chicago.

Ogunbowale heated up more and more throughout the game, finishing with a career-high 34 points, but she also poured on the gas defensively with three steals in the game.

“I thought the steal for a layup late in the game probably is the one that sealed the victory. Arike wins it with a defensive stop, I think that should be the headline,” McGraw said, poking fun at the senior’s typical preference for playing the offensive side of the ball.

Ogunbowale and Shepard combined for 58 points — two-thirds of Notre Dame’s points on the day. Turner summed up how the game’s strategy evolves when the duo plays as well as it did Saturday.

“If Jess is working hard, get her the ball. When [Arike] gets hot, she can’t be stopped,” she said.