There's No Stopping Arike Ogunbowale

Her two unforgettable last-second shots that lifted Notre Dame to the national championship are nothing new. The Fighting Irish senior guard has been seeking out and excelling in the limelight all her life. The difference now is that suddenly everyone seems to have noticed.
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorIN SOUTH BEND, INDIANANovember 9, 2018

On this October day in South Bend, every pass must be crisp, every cut full speed. Notre Dame's players sprint up and down, whipping passes faster, faster, faster in this full-court practice drill. Then one player screws up; she tosses an overhead pass that is deflected.

Players drop to the floor to hold a 30-second core plank for punishment. Even Muffet McGraw, the 62-year-old Hall of Fame coach, is planking. Teeth clenched, McGraw doesn't allow her navy sweatpants and light blue polo to graze the floor even for a second.

Arike Ogunbowale looks irritated. About-to-take-over-the-game irritated. Arike Mode is thrilling and terrifying, depending on which team you play for. The 5'8'' senior All-American cruises down the court and slices her way through three players to finish at the rim.

After that, she pretends she's about to drive in again, but she quickly stops for a pull-up, draining a long two. Her follow-through lingers as she leaves her right hand cupped down. She leans back, bouncing one, two, three times off of her right foot, very much expecting the ball to drop in.

Of course she does. She is the most clutch playmaker in women's college basketball. She drained two game-winning buzzer-beaters in the 2018 Final Four in March—the first against Connecticut, the second against Mississippi State—to lead the Fighting Irish to their first national title since 2001.

"The basketball court is a stage for her," says Greg Ogunbowale, her father. "This is where she's most comfortable."

She could miss seven straight but still be convinced she'll hit the eighth. She also stands firm in her decisions. McGraw describes what makes Arike, Arike, with the following hypothetical: If she ordered her to throw the ball into the post but the post player was suddenly double-teamed, Ogunbowale would defy the command. She'd pull up for a shot instead of forcing the pass. And if McGraw confronted her, Ogunbowale would tell the truth: The post wasn't open anymore.

"I love her swagger," McGraw says. "I wish more women would have it."

The Arike Show doesn't allow for many intermissions. So when a play breaks down on this day in practice and her teammates pause, the ball rolls out of bounds. Ogunbowale screams: "KEEP PLAYING! DON'T STOP!" Then she grabs the ball and muscles her way to the basket.

The basketball court is a stage for her. This is where she's most comfortable.
—Arike's father, Greg Ogunbowale

She has found a lane to the hoop since childhood, battling boys in her Milwaukee neighborhood in both basketball and football. Little Arike would dip her shoulder, running full speed ahead, and boys would practically fly off of her when they ran into her steely frame.

"Sometimes she'd be the one tackling," says Dare Ogunbowale, her older brother. She spent hours playing with him as well as Mario, her other older brother.

If she got tackled, she'd jump back up, take off running and go at whoever was in her way.

"I'm always in attack mode," Ogunbowale says. "I don't really hold back."

She learned that mentality from her two favorites, Kobe Bryant (she named her Goldendoodle "Kobi" after him) and Russell Westbrook.

"They have that mentality every time they go on the court that nobody can guard them, nobody can stop them but themselves," she says. "I go out thinking that—that nobody can stop me."

"I always think I'm the best player on the court. Whether that's true or not, that's what I'm going to believe. Really, nobody can tell me otherwise."

A few hours before practice, Ogunbowale zips around Notre Dame's campus on her blue Razor scooter. Her smile is big and bright as she breezes past Corbett Family Hall. The 21-year-old prefers the scooter to her Ford Edge. The scooter is Arike: cool, spunky, fun.

She is the in-and-out crossover, the reverse layup. Hang time and the extra dime. More often than not, she's wearing new Jordans. Some teammates send her screenshots of potential online clothing purchases, seeking her approval.

Students are sometimes intimidated by her, by the conviction in her walk. It's the way her shoulders are pressed back, never slumping; sure of herself but not arrogant. It's her charisma, her kindness. The way she looks strangers in the eye when speaking to them. The warm, casual "Hey, what's up?" she offers teammates when walking to class.

"When you're with Arike, everything's good," says senior guard Marina Mabrey, her close friend.

Since her star turn in last season's NCAA tournament, Arike Ogunbowale has become a star beyond the game of basketball.
Since her star turn in last season's NCAA tournament, Arike Ogunbowale has become a star beyond the game of basketball.Phil McCarten/Associated Press/Associated Press

Little girls and boys used to line up for her autograph for an hour after her games at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, especially after she dropped 55 points in the state semifinal. She was so fatigued in the dwindling seconds of that game that she couldn't stand on her own two legs. Her teammates helped her walk to the free-throw line. She swished both for the win.

"She was born to play in these huge games and have these huge moments," says Jeff Worzella, her former coach at Divine Savior. "She's so clutch, you're kind of caught off guard when she misses. It's tough to remember she's human."

Fans would even peek into her practices for North Tartan's AAU team just to get a glimpse; just to say hello to her and see what she might say back. And she treated each person as if they were a friend or a cousin.

"She's got a little bit of that Magic Johnson personality," says Greg Dietel, her former North Tartan coach. "She knows she's good. She plays like she's good. But she does it in a way that people enjoy watching and cheering and rooting for her. It isn't something that turns people off. It draws people to her."

Nowadays, Ogunbowale has morphed into a national celebrity. She appeared on Ellen, where Kobe made a surprise appearance to give her a signed jersey for herself and a mini signed jersey for her dog. She was also a contestant on Dancing with the Stars.

The buzz is still evident here at McAlister's Deli, a sandwich chain a short distance from campus. She orders a Caesar salad. Three different waitresses scurry back and forth five times within 30 minutes to ask how her salad is. Does she need anything else? Another refill? If her glass of ice water was a T-shirt, it would be an XXL; she hadn't come close to finishing it. But the women kept returning, kind and eager to talk to her.

Ogunbowale smiles. She is used to this. Humbled by this. Still shocked by this, by the way people whisper: "Is that Arike?! Is that Arike?!" while she's eating at restaurants with her family.

"It's definitely crazy," she says as the shiny cross dangling from her neck catches the light. "I met a lot of different people, been to a lot of places, got to experience a lot of different things. But I'm also not the type of person that gets too high.

"It's not like I feel like I'm living in this fantasy world. I'm still myself. I'm still regular. Amazing things have happened to me because of basketball, but I definitely didn't change my character, my personality, my ego. It's all the same."

But it isn't. She's keenly aware that she's a brand now. A personality. And as passionate as she is on the floor and as effervescent as she is off of it, a part of her is introverted and private. She doesn't open up much, not even to McGraw.

She is also trying to share her shine. This summer, Ogunbowale threw out the first pitch at a Brewers game. The White Sox wanted her to do it, too, but she let senior forward Jessica Shepard do it instead.

Amazing things have happened to me because of basketball, but I definitely didn't change my character, my personality, my ego. It's all the same.
—Arike Ogunbowale

"I'm sure she'd rather just be in the background, just doing her thing and not being in the spotlight," says Niele Ivey, associate head coach. "Just being Arike."

Arike insists she doesn't feel any pressure. As long as she has a Spalding, she's zen. She just wants to live up to the name her parents gave her, which is a Yoruba name that means "something that you see and cherish." Fame or not, she's still the same woman who screams like a five-year-old when watching horror movies and who battles her mother, Yolanda, at Uno with the intensity of a tournament game.

As levelheaded as her daughter seems amid her growing fame heading into her senior year, Yolanda still often reminds Arike that "you might not know it, but somebody is always watching you. Always."

Before the UConn shot, before the Mississippi State shot, there was another shot. One just as gutsy, just as decisive. But Arike was not Arike then; she was a wide-eyed sophomore who had only just begun to adjust to starter's minutes.

But when Notre Dame trailed Stanford by one with 2.3 seconds left in the 2017 NCAA tournament Elite Eight, McGraw thought of one player to turn to.

"Arike," McGraw said, in the huddle. "I want you to take the shot."

Ogunbowale blinked and nodded as her coach diagrammed a play. She was ecstatic and ready but had one question: "Do you want me to catch and shoot or do you want me to put it on the floor?"

"You gotta feel it," McGraw said. "If you wanna put it on the floor, drive it, whatever. You make the play. The ball is coming to you."

Ogunbowale caught the ball and raced into the lane. SMACK! Stanford's Erica McCall blocked her shot. The buzzer sounded. There was no confetti for her, no dogpiling her. Sure, prior team mistakes like missed box-outs and turnovers put the Fighting Irish in this situation, but still. In the dwindling seconds, Arike didn't deliver (though she did finish with 25 points).

The miss and the loss stung all summer. "She was devastated," Ivey says. "She took that to heart. Her mindset completely shifted after that moment."

But then she let it go. She didn't dwell on it. She erased it like it never happened. Like it didn't eat her up for three muggy weeks in South Bend. She spent more hours in the gym and weight room than she had before, becoming even stronger.

She came back to campus last year with a different air about her. "She understood, 'I have to be the one,'" Ivey says. "She was prepared for those [game-winning] shots because she failed before."

She was also prepared because she had long waited to be "the one." Ogunbowale described her freshman year as "rocky." As one of the most sought-after recruits in the country, she was accustomed to being the best player on the floor. She never came out of the game as a high schooler, entertaining the crowd by getting a girl in the air with a quick fake and then twisting her body to finish with an up-and-under off the glass.

"She was doing things you don't see high school girls do," says Scott Witt, who coached her during her first three years at Divine Savior. "She was so advanced. Just in another world."

In college, though, everyone was just as good as her, if not better. And there were seniors ahead of her. Most importantly, they played defense and she didn't. She was instinctive and so used to blowing by anyone that she didn't need to play in a cerebral way. The game was just too easy.

But McGraw wanted her to think situations through; to not just answer "I don't know" when asked why a move worked or didn't work. To not just come down and shoot it, but survey all of her options.

Coming off the bench was difficult for Ogunbowale. "I was on her pretty hard I would say all the time," McGraw says, "because I could see what her potential was, and she wasn't reaching it."

But her confidence wasn't shaken. McGraw liked how it wasn't; how differently she reacted from most players in such a situation. Ogunbowale thought she should be playing. Not in an arrogant or dismissive way, but in a resolute way. Ogunbowale knew she had weaknesses to address, but she was so competitive, she burned to play every second of the game.

Arike Ogunbowale struggled with the limited playing time she received as a freshman, but it allowed her the chance to understand her game in ways she hadn't explored before getting to Notre Dame.
Arike Ogunbowale struggled with the limited playing time she received as a freshman, but it allowed her the chance to understand her game in ways she hadn't explored before getting to Notre Dame.Robert Franklin/Associated Press

"I could have gone to another school, started freshman year, averaged 20 points a game, but I wouldn't have been learning and I wouldn't be getting better," Ogunbowale says.

She tried to stay patient, often turning to advice from her brother Dare, who walked on to the football team his first year at University of Wisconsin and eventually became a team captain. He told her to trust the process, that things weren't going to be handed to her. She wasn't entitled to anything. She never has been.

The first day six-year-old Arike showed up to her brothers' peewee football practice, she came in a gray hooded sweatshirt that was so big, it covered her face and body. It was cold outside. She stood on the sideline watching spiral after spiral until her little hands began throwing the football and catching it.

A father on the sideline spotted her and asked her for the ball. He tossed it to her and she leapt up and caught it. But she jumped so high that her hoodie fell off.

The father paused. He didn't understand what he was seeing. "Hell no, she's a girl!" the father shouted, stunned. "She's a girl!"

Little Arike had the biggest smile on her face— a got-out-of-school-early-and-even-got-some-ice-cream kind of smile. She had won the day. And she would keep doing so, enduring bumps and bruises as she reached the end zone.

She played soccer competitively, too, dancing past girls with agile footwork. On the basketball court, she wanted to be everywhere and do everything—the one shooting it, the one passing it.

When she'd battle Dare one-on-one, absorbing every foul he'd deliver, she'd make and-1s to spite him. She wouldn't shrink.

"She was the one that was bullying us, making fun of us," he says. "She knew she was just as good as anybody."

Maybe that came from Yolanda, who coached Arike's youth basketball teams. Yolanda was a pitcher for DePaul University's softball team, and she's as competitive as they come. She'd teach her kids the importance of having a short-term memory. She'd tell them bad things will happen; you might lose, but you always have another chance. Another shot.

Arike was playing up an age group, and though she was strong, she was not the tallest. Yolanda would tell her to hold her ground. "You're not the only Arike out here," Yolanda would say. "There are a lot of girls who are better than you. You have to separate yourself from them."

Arike Ogunbowale @Arike_O

always supporting ❤🏀🍀 @Ogunbogy @ mom https://t.co/erQ3moHkfg

Her father, Greg, who played soccer and rugby and later served in the Nigerian army, also instilled discipline. He stressed touching the line when running a suicide, even when no one was watching. "The way you practice is the way you're going to play," Greg would say. "No cheating, no shortcuts."

Greg and Yolanda kept Arike grounded, even as she would later attract large crowds at her high school games. "They always told me the things people didn't tell me," Arike says. "They always criticized me after every game. I could have 30 points and they'll tell me the things I did wrong. That definitely helped me."

Arike often thinks about this now that strangers tell her how clutch she is. They tell her they saw her on TV. They tell her she has the Mamba mentality. They tell her she's the most exciting women's collegiate player they've seen in a while.

But her parents don't tell her those things. Yolanda even cut off Arike's iPhone for three days last season after she didn't answer her mom's call one day. (It's unlike Arike to not answer the phone.)

That same day, Yolanda remembers, Notre Dame lost badly to Louisville, 100-67. Arike didn't have much energy. The spunk was gone. Arike was gone. She was held to five points on 2-of-9 shooting in 33 minutes.

She felt like she let her team down.

It would be the catalyst for her best season yet, as she went on to average 20.8 points a game.

She also averaged 6.3 points in the fourth quarter on 53.5 percent shooting. Her 791 points were the most for a single season in school history.

Some coaches and players laugh at the iPhone story. It's just one reason why they weren't worried that all of the offseason fame would go to Arike's head. They knew her family wouldn't let that happen.

"It doesn't matter what people say about you," Arike says. "You always know what you need to know from your family."

Most practices, Notre Dame does a drill called "Perfect Offense." Players have five straight possessions to score twice, all the while executing every single detail of the possession perfectly. That includes screens, rebounds, cuts and having someone back for safety. Players can't turn the ball over, and there must be a minimum of three to four passes. Three rebounders must be in the lane at all times. 

The drill can sometimes take far longer than intended. Executing the sequence with precision is grueling. Players hate this drill. Absolutely dread this drill.

Not Arike.

As perhaps the highest-profile senior in college basketball, Ogunbowale understands she will need to serve as a leader to her teammates if they hope to repeat as national champions.
As perhaps the highest-profile senior in college basketball, Ogunbowale understands she will need to serve as a leader to her teammates if they hope to repeat as national champions.Ron Schwane/Associated Press/Associated Press

She loves it. Loves how little room for error there is and how high the stakes are. There are always consequences, always more sprints. "We're going to get it in five," she often tells her teammates before the drill begins.

She leads the way in ways she didn't used to. She finds quick opportunities to dish a pass to teammates, building on her 105 assists last season, up from 69 the year before. "You have to be on your toes," says Colleen Scott, a former high school teammate. "You always have to watch Arike when she has the ball. She'll find you."

You can also see her sliding on defense with an intensity she hasn't displayed before. She was not as committed to that end of the floor the last few years. But McGraw was recently watching film and saw Arike more than tending to her individual assignment. She was practically flying across the floor, rotating to different assignments, energizing the team defense.

"Man, she's working harder than anybody on the defensive side right now," McGraw said to herself.

And you can hear Arike more, too. Neither loud nor quiet, Arike has always led by example. But now she's starting to speak up. Starting to realize there are freshmen who are looking to her not just to take big shots, but lead an offense.

"I tell her this all the time: This team is going to go as you go," Ivey says. "They follow you."


Mirin Fader is a Writer-At-Large for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Follow her on Twitter:@MirinFader.


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