TAMPA, Fla. — This time, Notre Dame needed Arike Ogunbowale a lot earlier.
A year after Ogunbowale hit an amazing pair of buzzer beaters in the Final Four, the Irish star rushed to the rescue early in the fourth quarter.
Ogunbowale scored 14 of her 23 points in the final period, leading a rally from a nine-point deficit with eight minutes left to help the defending champion Irish beat UConn 81-76 Friday night for a return trip to the title game.
"I don't think it was any mystery you know who was going to be taking the majority of their shots in the fourth quarter," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "It's the way they've always played since Arike's been there. She still has to make those shots and she did. She's an almost impossible matchup 1-on-1."
The Irish will face Baylor for the crown Sunday night, trying to become the fourth different school to win consecutive championships — UConn, Tennessee and Southern California have done it.
Baylor beat Oregon 72-67 in the first semifinal, setting up a rematch of the 2012 national championship game the Lady Bears won 80-61.
This game between the Huskies and the Irish was a rematch of last season's Final Four classic that Notre Dame won on a last-second shot by Ogunbowale. This one — the latest chapter in the greatest rivalry in women's basketball over the past decade — provided a fitting encore.
Irish coach Muffet McGraw celebrated by dancing a little jig at midcourt after this comeback victory.
Notre Dame (35-3) trailed 64-55 with 7:52 left before scoring 13 of the next 16 points to take a 68-66 lead on Ogunbowale's short jumper with 3:56 left. The teams then traded the lead five times over the next few minutes with Jessica Shepard hitting a jumper from the foul line with 1:27 left to put the Irish ahead 75-74.
After Crystal Dangerfield missed a drive down the lane, Ogunbowale hit two free throws to give the Irish a three-point advantage with 58.3 seconds left. On UConn's next possession, Brianna Turner came flying out of nowhere to block Napheesa Collier's layup attempt and then Ogunbowale hit two more free throws to make it a five-point game.
"My only mindset was that UConn's season was going to end tonight no matter what it took," Turner said. "If I was going to get a rebound, scoring, boxing out, playing hard D, we were going to get the win."
Katie Lou Samuelson scored 20 points — all in the second half — for the Huskies (35-3).
"Obviously you know we're incredibly disappointed that we didn't win the game, but we played a great team and they played really, really well when they had to," Auriemma said. "We still had a chance. We just weren't good enough tonight to do it. They were better than us tonight."
The star matchup between Ogunbowale and Samuelson never got going in the first half. Ogunbowale scored just two points before the break, Samuelson was shut out.
Samuelson was the first to hit in a big way, scoring 15 points in the third quarter. Her three foul shots with a second left gave UConn a 54-52 lead.
The Huskies' lead kept growing before the Irish rallied in front of a sellout crowd of 20,062. Ogunbowale had 14 points in the fourth quarter.
These two teams have had a habit of playing on the game's biggest stage. UConn and Notre Dame have now played seven times in the national semifinals or title game since 2011 — the Irish hold a 4-3 advantage.
There has been a different vibe around UConn this season. Unlike the previous two years, they don't have the burden of a record winning streak or an unbeaten season. Heading into their showdown with rival Irish on Friday night, the Huskies had already lost two games this season and didn't have, as Auriemma put it, "the fear of losing."
UConn had never lost three straight years in the Final Four until now.
The Huskies jumped out to a 13-4 lead behind strong play from Collier and a stellar defensive effort as the Irish missed 14 of their first 16 shots. The Irish closed the opening period with an 8-3 burst to only trail by four after one quarter.
The Irish continued its run and took a 22-18 lead on a putback by Ogunbowale. It was her only basket of the first half as she went 1 for 7 from the field.
"She just got off to a slow start in a lot of ways. She feels like she has to carry us because she's the leading scorer," McGraw said. "I thought she settled in at halftime. Her teammates really help her. They continue to encourage her and she came alive in the second half."
The teams then traded the lead over the rest of the half with the Christyn Williams' jumper in the lane just before halftime giving the Huskies a 30-29 advantage.
Official Michol Murray slipped in the first quarter opposite the UConn bench with 4:54 left and after trainers came over to check her knee, they took her back to the locker room in a wheelchair. Standby official Gina Cross took over. It's the first time in the history of the Final Four that the standby official had to enter the game according to the NCAA. Official Lisa Jones, who refereed the first game, was brought back to serve as the new standby.
Samuelson and Collier finished their career with 4,743 points which is the highest combo for a pair of classmates in school history. ... This was the 50th meeting between the schools and UConn holds a 37-13 lead in the all-time series.
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Doug Feinberg, The Associated Press