CHICAGO — Texas A&M might have had the best player, but Notre Dame had the best team.
A&M sophomore point guard Chennedy Carter scored a game-high 35 points, but Notre Dame All-American Arike Ogunbowale hit the game’s biggest shots to lift the top-seeded Irish to an 87-80 victory over Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Saturday afternoon at Wintrust Arena.
Defending national champion North Dame (33-3) advances to play second-seeded Stanford (31-4) in the Elite Eight on Monday night. Stanford advanced with a 55-46 victory over 11th-seeded Missouri State (25-10).
For the second straight season A&M (26-8) ended its run in the Sweet 16 against Notre Dame, and both games were classics in part because of the play of Ogunbowale and Carter.
Ogunbowale hit a 3-pointer and a fast-break layup off a Carter turnover to break a 69-69 tie, giving Notre Dame the lead for good.
“The bigger the moment, the bigger she plays,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “She’s not afraid of the big moment by any means.”
In last year’s national title game against Mississippi State, Ogunbowale hit a 3-pointer with 0.1 seconds left for a 61-58 victory.
Ogunbowale also scored 27 points in a 90-84 victory over A&M in last year’s Sweet 16. She came up big again against the Aggies on Saturday, scoring 24 of her career-high 34 points in the second half, including 12 with the game on the line.
Fourth-seeded A&M tied the game for the 11th time at 69-69 on a layup by reserve post Aja Ellison with 6 minutes, 57 seconds left, but Ogunbowale’s buckets jump-started a 10-2 Irish run.
“We had our chances,” A&M coach Gary Blair said. “That’s all you can want.”
Ogunbowale, one of four senior starters for Irish, gave credit to the partisan crowd of 7,715 for spurring the game-winning run, especially her steal and score that forced A&M to take a timeout.
“The energy was high, and I was just trying to do anything to help the team,” Ogunbowale said. “That play was big. It was a real momentum-changer.”
The Aggies failed to answer Ogunbowale’s buckets in three straight possessions, allowing Notre Dame to stretch its lead to 76-69 on a short jumper by Jackie Young. The Aggies pulled within five points three times, but Notre Dame always responded. Ogunbowale completed a three-point play after getting fouled by Carter for a 79-71 lead with 3:14 left, matching Notre Dame’s biggest advantage. Young hit another jumper with 1:21 left for an 81-74 lead, and finally with 31 seconds left, Ogunbowale hit two free throws to make it 85-78.
Norte Dame, which has all five starters averaging in double figures, made 8 of 14 field goals in the fourth quarter.
“Who are you going to stop?” Blair said. “The only one we stopped was [Marina] Marbrey and Marbrey wasn’t at 100 percent healthwise. ... We just couldn’t stop them from scoring.”
Sharp-shooting Ogunbowale hit 14 of 26 field goals and had plenty of help. Post Jessica Shepard added 24 points on 11-of-18 shooting. Young, the lone junior starter, added 14 points, and 6-foot-3 guard Brianna Turner scored 12. Young and Turner both hit 5 of 10 from the floor.
Notre Dame made 36 of 69 field goals (52.2 percent), becoming the first A&M opponent this season to shoot better than 46 percent.
Carter hit 13 of 34 field goals, including 7 of 12 on 3-pointers.
“She’s really hard to guard,” McGraw said. “She might be the best individual player that we’ve played all year.”
A&M sophomore guard Kayla Wells added 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting, and sophomore post Ciera Johnson had 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Notre Dame had a 45-28 rebounding edge with the 6-4 Shepard having 14 and 6-0 guard Young adding eight. Shepard also helped the Irish to a 52-42 edge in points in the paint.
“We lost the game probably because of the paint points that they got, whether it was Arike posting up or their two bigs inside,” Blair said.
Notre Dame also did a great job sharing the basketball with 20 assists on 36 buckets.
“Their high-low game was hurting us,” Blair said. “That’s why they’re defending national champions.”
A hectic first half had 15 lead changes and eight ties, the last when Johnson rebounded and scored off a Carter miss with 3 seconds left to make it 42-42.
A&M had a fast start for the game, but Carter picked up two fouls in the first 4:05, the last a slight pushoff before sinking a 10-foot jumper that was waved off. Carter was able to play the rest of the half without picking up a third foul, surviving a couple close noncalls.
“[You just] keep your head together,” Carter said. “It’s fine, stay within the system, keep playing defense.”