March 21, 2018
By John Heisler
Who exactly is that seemingly impossible to stop, whirling dervish driving headlong down the basketball floor in a University of Notre Dame uniform, oft-times making plays around the basket that belie her 5-8 frame?
Is it a bird?
Is it a plane?
Irish women’s basketball associate head coach Niele Ivey–who knows a little bit about guard play as a former Notre Dame All-American and NCAA champion–doesn’t hesitate when asked to describe any opposing coach’s conundrum.
“She’s a nightmare,” says Ivey.
Says fellow Irish junior guard and classmate Marina Mabrey, “You can’t guard her for 40 minutes.”
Those are the opposite competing forces produced by Irish junior guard Arike Ogunbowale.
For Notre Dame, she’s an irrepressible scorer capable of making plays anywhere on the floor. Only 10 players in the country have made more field goals than she has in 2017-18.
For opposing teams and coaches, she’s a three-Tylenol-requiring headache of a defensive challenge.
Adds Ivey, “She’s circled on everybody’s scouting report because she’s really hard to guard.”
As Irish head coach Muffet McGraw leads her Notre Dame squad into NCAA Sweet 16 play this weekend in Spokane, Washington, expect Ogunbowale to be a prime topic of conversation on both sides of the fence.
Ivey recalls hearing about Ogunbowale before the Milwaukee product ever left eighth grade. She saw her play for the first time the summer after Ogunbowale’s freshman season at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School in northwest Milwaukee.
Says Ivey, “I remember seeing her for the first time in a tournament in Chicago and thinking, “Oh, wow, this kid’s going to be really special.’
“She was such a strong guard who could score. She was small, but she played a lot bigger. I couldn’t help but notice how powerful she was. Other players just bounced off of her–she had kind of a college body in high school.
“And when you watched her, you kept coming back to the fact she just had that ability to score.”
Ogunbowale merited nearly every honor a high school player can earn as a Parade and McDonald’s All-American and three-time Associated Press and Gatorade Wisconsin High School Player of the Year.
As with many high school stars, the adjustment to the major-college level involves an appreciation that, especially at a place like Notre Dame, you don’t have to make every play.
“Here at Notre Dame it was about molding her into our system,” says Ivey. “She could still shine the way she shines but use her strength offensively and fit it into what we do. She’s come a long way in terms of moving without the ball.
“Just like when I first saw her in high school, she still plays so much bigger than 5-8. She has great body control, she’s strong, she has speed with the ball, she can post up any guard.
“She can just flat-out get to the rim and she’s really improved her three-point percentage (currently .375). And she’s got a great mid-range game where she’ll just pull up and hit that soft little shot around the lane.”
In a game that kick-started Notre Dame’s late-season run, Ogunbowale’s play in a record comeback win against sixth-ranked Tennessee typified her ability to take over a game.
Coming off a shocking 100-67 road loss at Louisville, the Irish exactly a week later trailed the Lady Vols 37-14 with seven minutes remaining in the second quarter. Ogunbowale had 10 points at intermission and scored eight of the final 10 Irish points of the half, yet Notre Dame still trailed 39-27.
The fourth period became Ogunbowale’s personal playground after her Irish faced a 10-point deficit entering the final 10 minutes:
–Her two free throws at 8:48 cut the Tennessee lead to seven.
–She grabbed a defensive rebound at one end of the court and eight seconds later knocked down a jump shot at 7:35 to make it a five-point game.
–An offensive rebound turned into an Ogunbowale’s layup at 6:24 as the Irish pulled with two.
–After a Lady Vol turnover, Ogunbowale’s pair of free throws at 5:48 tied the game.
–She assisted on the Mabrey three-pointer at 5:03 that gave Notre Dame the lead for good.
–Her own three-pointer at 3:16 gave the Irish a 75-68 advantage.
–Her layup at 1:25 made it 81-68 for Notre Dame on the way to a final 84-70 Irish victory.
She finished with 11 points in that final period alone at Purcell Pavilion–and she had so much success slicing to the hoop in late-game situations that if the contest had gone on another quarter Ogunbowale might have willed the Irish to a 25-point win.
Seven times in 2017-18 she has scored in double figures in the final period–including 14 against Florida State and a dozen versus Louisville in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament semifinal and final.
Ivey and the Irish staff have worked to prepare their do-it-all guard for the focus she receives from opposing defenses.
“We’ve always worked with her with the idea she’s going to see a lot of great defenders–whether that’s face-guarding, triangle and two, box and one,” says Ivey.
“So we’ve structured our practices so she knows how to create her shot with great defenders, great pressure, denial or moving without the ball.
“That has been the biggest thing for her this year. We would tell her, ‘If this person guards you, we’ll do this. If that person guards you, we’ll do that.'”
It all worked well enough to make Ogunbowale a unanimous first-team All-ACC selection. She averages 20.6 points per game, rates third on the team with 5.5 rebounds per outing and stands second in steals at 52.
A second-team All-America selection (USA Today and espnW) who is a finalist for the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award as top shooting guard in the country, Ogunbowale already this year has broken the Irish single-season mark (and led the ACC) for 20-point games (23 to date).
And yet Ogunbowale hasn’t had to be the whole show, even with projected all-star Brianna Turner sitting out the year due to injury. Ogunbowale scored 30 and 24 points in NCAA games last weekend against Cal State Northridge and Villanova–yet in both contests she had a pair of teammates also score 20 or more.
The Irish boast three other double-figure scorers–post presence Jessica Shepard at 15.6, sweet-shooting Mabrey at 14.5 and all-purpose talent Jackie Young at 14.4–so even with the way the injury bug bit McGraw’s crew in 2017-18 her squad is hardly devoid of weapons.
“It has to be a nightmare for opposing teams,” says Ivey. “We’re a great transition team and when Arike gets the ball, she’ll go coast to coast and she can score in such a variety of ways.
“Talking to other coaches, they say, ‘We can’t figure out how to stop Arike.’
“They’ll try to send two people at her to try to frustrate her, but I think she has really matured in knowing to stay within what we’re doing and not try to do too much.”
Some days Ogunbowale plays as if she could score every basket. She led the ACC in scoring and field goals and, if her current average holds up, will become only the third Notre Dame women’s player to average 20 points per game in a season (Katryna Gaither had 20.4 in 1996-97 and current Irish associate head coach Beth Morgan Cunningham 20.2 the previous season).
“When she gets in a flow she is really hard to guard,” says Ivey.
A fireball of a player who has added finesse to her game, Ogunbowale sometimes looks like the Jerome Bettis of the Irish women’s team as she charges through potential tacklers.
Mabrey laughs as she considers how she would try to deal with her all-star teammate if they wore different-colored jerseys:
“I would try to get in her head and make her mad.”
Good luck with that, says Ivey:
“When she has her three-pointer going, her mid-range game and then the way she goes to the rim? That’s a really tough combination.”
Texas A&M, the fourth seed in the NCAA Spokane Regional, will be the next option to attempt to slow down the Ogunbowale train.
Tune in to ESPN at 4 p.m. EDT Saturday to see if Ogunbowale can help provide nightmares for the Aggies–and sweet (16) dreams for the Irish.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame sports scene since 1978.