CHICAGO — Consider this a sweet repeat for Notre Dame.
Arike Ogunbowale scored a career-high 34 points, Jessica Shepard added 24 points and 14 rebounds, and the defending national champion Fighting Irish beat Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year, 87-80 on Saturday.
Ogunbowale, last year’s Final Four hero, scored 24 in the second half. She had 12 in the final 6:45 to help the top-seeded Fighting Irish (33-3) advance to the Elite Eight of the women’s NCAA Tournament for the eighth time in nine years. They will play No. 2 seed Stanford or 11th-seeded Missouri State in the Chicago Region final on Monday.
“The bigger the moment, the bigger she plays,” coach Muffet McGraw said. “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, the Irish’s career scoring leader, surpassed her previous high of 32 points. Shepard dominated down low, and Notre Dame scored another tournament knockout over the Aggies with its 12th straight win.
Chennedy Carter led Texas A&M (26-8) with a season-high 35 points in another impressive NCAA performance, though she took 34 shots. The sophomore guard came in averaging just over 30 points in five career tournament games and had the touch from long range, nailing 7 of 12 3-pointers.
Kayla Wells scored 18. But it was an all-too-familiar result against Notre Dame for the fourth-seeded Aggies.
“Notre Dame played damn good. We played almost damn good,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said.
The Fighting Irish beat Texas A&M by six points last year during a championship run that ended with a thrilling comeback against Mississippi State for their second title. Ogunbowale came on strong down the stretch in that game to finish with 27 points, and another second-half surge lifted the Irish to one more tight victory over the Aggies.
“Things opened up a little bit more,” she said. “The game picked up and we got steals and we got in transition and we were getting rebounds. We had better defence in the second half, so when we get rebounds and get in transition, we get a lot of points there.”
The game was tied at 69 with just under seven minutes remaining when Ogunbowale popped to the right wing for a 3-pointer and broke for a layup after picking off a pass by Carter, delighting the green-clad Irish fans. Jackie Young hit a turnaround shot in the paint to make it a seven-point game.
Carter drove for a layup. But Ogunbowale pulled up for a three-point play , hitting the free throw after getting knocked to the floor to make it 79-71. Her twisting fast-break layup made it 83-74 with 54 seconds remaining. But Ogunbowale got a little too excited and picked up a technical foul she said was “justified,” resulting in two free throws by Wells.
A layup by Ciera Johnson cut it to 83-78 with 43 seconds left. But Ogunbowale and Young each hit two free throws to get the lead back up to nine before Wells scored for Texas A&M with 8 seconds left.
“I’m really proud of them,” Carter said. “We’re a group of sophomores going against seniors, potential draft picks. I was so proud of the way we fought tonight. We fought for four quarters, and we left it out there on the court.”
Texas A&M: Johnson had 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Notre Dame: The Irish reached the Elite Eight for the 10th time. They are trying to make their ninth Final Four. … Brianna Turner had four blocks, giving her 100 this season.
Texas A&M: Carter dominated again and Wells had a solid game. But the Aggies couldn’t keep their season going.
Notre Dame: The Irish have been there and won it all, and their experience showed down the stretch. The tight victory came after they won their previous 11 games by at least 18 points.
Notre Dame awaits its opponent in Monday’s regional final.