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 9-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.
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 3-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 5-point game.
‘‘My only mind-set 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.’’