Arike Ogunbowale helps defending champ Notre Dame avoid Sweet 16 upset

CHICAGO -- She did not look like Notre Dame's biggest nightmare, standing a mere 5-foot-7 and heaving up I-can't-believe-she's-shooting-from-out-there shots. But every time Chennedy Carter made one of those shots or injected some of her swagger, it seemed to fire up the Texas A&M basketball team even more. And made a nervous crowd full of green T-shirts gulp.

The defending national champions lived to see another day in the women's NCAA basketball tournament, thanks to their own game-changing guard, Arike Ogunbowale. The senior scored a career-high 34 points -- 24 in the second half -- to lead Notre Dame to an 87-80 win over Texas A&M in the Sweet 16.

Monday night, they'll play either Stanford or Missouri State in the Elite Eight. Saturday, they exhaled when Carter and the young upstart Aggies finally left the building. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw told reporters earlier in the week that she didn't like any of her options in guarding Carter.

"I'm obviously a prophet," McGraw said after the game.

Carter put up 35 points on 34 shots, the second-most field-goal attempts in NCAA tournament history. She shot 3-pointers, hitting 7-of-12, mainly by necessity because she picked up two early fouls and couldn't drive the ball.

Her layup gave the Aggies a 67-65 lead early in the fourth quarter, and the tension in Wintrust Arena was palpable. Notre Dame, a No. 1 seed with all the seniors and experience and back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight, appeared to be on the ropes.

That's when Ogunbowale took over the game. She swished a 3-pointer to break a 69-69 tie and celebrated a little as she watched it swish through the net. Then she stole the ball and hit a layup, and the crowd erupted.

From there, A&M and Carter weren't the same.

Ogunbowale hit a falling shot and was fouled, converted the three-point play and gave Notre Dame an eight-point cushion with 3:14 to play. "Let's go!" she yelled to her teammates, to the crowd and, presumably, to the future that is still ahead of them thanks to their senior.

"I feel like it started in transition," A&M guard Kayla Wells said. "She got a few easy buckets, and that got her going. So she came out and she was feeling it and she was hitting shots. We were trying to guard her the best way we can, and she just continued to hit shots."

The Irish no doubt felt that way in the first half with Carter. She sank 4 of 5 3-pointers. She helped the Aggies go into halftime tied at 42.

The 26-8 Aggies brought a physical and up-tempo style on Saturday, but Ogunbowale said that didn't surprise her. "But I think we let it go a little bit in the first half," she said.

The thing about Notre Dame's offense is that opponents can't shut down one or two players and hope for the best. The Irish, who have the NCAA's most prolific offense, got 15 points from senior Jessica Shepard in the first half (she finished with 24 points, 16 rebounds and 6 assists), then turned to Ogunbowale for her scoring -- and her emotion.

She got a technical in the final minutes but said it was justified because she let her emotions get the best of her. Saturday marked the first NCAA tournament game over the past 20 seasons with opposing players each scoring 30 points.

In the end, experience won out.

"She made a lot of good shots," Carter said of Ogunbowale. "She's a pretty good player. Arike is older, so she's kind of been in some similar situations, so good job to her."

This was the second year in a row that Notre Dame ended Texas A&M's season. But this one felt different. Coach Gary Blair didn't feel comfortable going to Carter to lead the team last year because she was a freshman. Late Saturday, he was stumping for her to be an All-American.

He had no idea she'd get this good this fast. Expectations around College Station seemed low. Heading into the season, he hoped his team could keep their NCAA tournament streak alive for the 14th straight year.

"That will not be our goal next year," Blair said.

"We can play with the big girls. We just showed it. And Notre Dame did not play bad; they played damned good. We almost played damned good."