COLUMBUS, Ohio — This was 15 minutes after Mississippi State’s collective heart had been broken. Vic Schaefer was giving an opening statement at the post-game press conference. To his left, sat his four seniors – three of whom were part of 126 victories over the past four seasons.
All four were crying in various stages of grief, their eyes already red from earlier sobs that followed Arike Ogunboewale’s miraculous shot that lifted Notre Dame to a 61-58 national championship victory.
So Vic Schaefer opened with a statement thanking his seniors and in praise of Notre Dame and then he said this: “We’re up five with a minute, 40 seconds to go. It’s my job to get ’em home. I didn’t get ’em home. I’ll wear that maybe for the rest of my career.”
Closest to him, his daughter, Blair Schaefer, cried a little harder.
Later, when it came her time to talk, she disagreed with her dad.
“He said it was his fault because he didn’t get us home,” Blair said. “At the end of the day, we have to go out and execute. … So I don’t think it should be his fault and I don’t think anyone should think it’s his fault either.”
A case in point: With 40 seconds to play and scored tied at 58, State called a timeout and Vic Schaefer drew up a play that was designed to go to Teaira McCowan in the low post. It worked perfectly and with 28 seconds left McCowan stepped around her defender and shot a layup she makes 19 times out of 20. It rolled off the rim. Notre Dame rebounded.
It was a masterful play, worked to perfection. She just missed it.
It’s big of Vic Schaefer to take the blame. But he couldn’t have drawn it up any better. If Tea makes that shot, State probably wins.
Not that you can blame McCowan for anything in this NCAA Tournament. She had 18 points and 17 rebounds in the championship game. She shattered the NCAA Tournament record for rebounds by 34 with 109 in State’s six games.
Really, no need for anyone to take the blame – unless you want to blame officials who collectively swallowed their whistles when Morgan William was hammered dribbling down the court with four seconds left, trying to get State in position to make the winning shot. And not even William would do that.
“There was no whistle, so I don’t guess there was a foul,” William said.
Notre Dame recovered the resulting loose ball. McCowan fouled Jackie Young, and Notre Dame called a timeout to set up the winning play, which was hardly a play at all. Ogunboewale made an off-balance, one-legged, falling away 20-footer that went through the hoop like it had eyes. I thought I had a better chance of spelling her name correctly than she had of making that shot.
But she made it. Unbelievably, she made it.
Sometimes, in sports, you just have to give credit, period.
Give Ogunboewale credit for making her second game-winning shot of the Final Four. Give Notre Dame credit for coming back from a 15-point third quarter deficit. Credit Notre Dame’s zone defense, especially in the second half, for taking State out of its offensive rhythm. Give the Irish credit for doing about as good a job as can be done on McCowan at this stage of her career.
And, while you’re at it, give Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw credit for holding her team together through the loss of four players to ACL injuries this season. The Irish used only six players against State. They were six iron women.
Give Notre Dame credit for making one more play than State. That’s what it comes down to, one more play. Ogunboewale made a miracle shot just a few minutes after State missed the chippie. (The Irish also made 15 of 17 free throws, while State made only 10 of 17. That’s a five-point swing in a three-point game.)
But also give State credit for reaching the national championship game for the second time in two years. Give McCowan credit for one of the greatest individual tournament efforts in NCAA history. Give Victoria Vivians credit for capping a storied career with a game-high 21 points, nine rebounds and four steals in her final game.
Give those seniors, who were recruited to what was then a mediocre program, credit for averaging 31.5 victories a season over four.
As Vic Schaefer put it, “They’re going to be so successful in life because of their grit, their determination, and how they embrace the grind of life, as well as the game of basketball. They played their hearts out … It hurts, but Notre Dame just made one more play.”
That really is what it comes down to. One more play. Notre Dame made it. State did not. And, yes, it hurt. I’ve been in a lot of somber locker rooms, none more somber than Mississippi State’s this night.