Notre Dame’s instant-classic, last-second defeat of Mississippi State to win the NCAA women’s national basketball championship on Sunday night resonated throughout the area.
• Former Fairmont High School girls basketball teammates mugged for celebration selfies at courtside in Nationwide Arena at Columbus.
• Twitter feeds went on overdrive from Kettering Cobras youth basketball alums.
• Even former Fairmont girls basketball coach Tim Cogan joined in the fun.
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Anyone who had anything to do with the front end of Fairmont grad Kathryn Westbeld’s journey to the top of women’s college basketball wanted to salute her. That included a robust family, most of whom remain anchored in the area and ventured to Columbus for the final four games.
“Unreal,” Westbeld told ND Insider following the 61-58 win. “I’m just so, so happy and so proud to be part of this organization and just feel the love. It’s such a surreal moment for me.”
A 6-foot-2 senior, Westbeld ended a stellar Irish career in the grandest fashion. A starter the last three seasons, she put a team- and career-high 20 points on Oregon in the regional finals. Against top-ranked and unbeaten Connecticut, she scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds in 91-89 overtime semifinal victory on Friday. She added six points and a team-high nine rebounds in the title game vs. MSU.
Both games were decided by bombs from Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale, an excitable – and clutch sure shot – junior from Milwaukee. She struck twice against UConn, to force OT then to win. It was the same against Mississippi State.
Trailing by 15 points in the second half, Ogunbowale’s 3-pointer from the wing with 0.1 left was the game winner. There was a do-over Irish celebration after the teams were called back to the court when it was ruled MSU had time to in-bound the ball.
They did that, time ran out before a shot was taken and Notre Dame fans rushed the court.
Among the Irish well-wishers on the floor were Chelsea Welch, the Horizon League player of the year this season as a senior at Wright State, Makayla Waterman, a key sub at Ohio State who will return next season as a senior, and Alona Skipper, all former teammates of Westbeld’s at Fairmont.
Welch’s tweet that accompanied the group shot: “My easter consisted of a firebird family reunion, one best friends birthday, and my other best friend winning the national championship. Can you top that?”
Those four – and others – were integral in Fairmont winning a Division I girls state basketball championship in 2013. There were two other state runner-ups in 2011-12. In all, Fairmont advanced to four consecutive D-I state final fours with Cogan as coach.
“That was definitely a special group, without question,” said Cogan, who was among the near-capacity crowd that rocked Nationwide. “They really bought in and believed and were passionate about everything they were doing. We were blessed to accomplish what we did with that group.”
It was the second national championship for Notre Dame (35-3), which also won in 2001. The Irish were national runner-ups in 2011, ’12, ’14 and ’15, when Westbeld was a freshman sub.
Jessica Shepard had 19 points to lead Notre Dame and Ogunbowale 18. Mississippipi State (37-2) was led by Victoria Vivians’ 21 points.
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The Easter Sunday special was the 800th career win for Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. She has led the Irish for 31 seasons. Former Chaminade Julienne standout Megan Duffy also excelled as an All-American for the Irish in 2006. She’s now the Miami head coach.
There was speculation that Westbeld and Waterman, both 6-2 front-liners, would play at OSU together. Instead, Westbeld headed to the South Bend, Indiana, campus, where college basketball history awaited.
“I knew they were getting a diamond in the rough,” Cogan said. “They were getting a good one. She’s a winner. You want to be surrounded by kids like her.”