LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Even after Alanna Smith and Stanford pulled off a huge rally to put the Cardinal in position to reach the Final Four, there still was work to do.
That’s when Erica McCall stepped up and blocked Notre Dame’s path.
Smith’s layup with 23 seconds left capped Stanford’s comeback from a 16-point deficit in the second half, McCall swatted a last-second shot and the Cardinal edged top-seeded Notre Dame 76-75 Sunday for its first Final Four trip since 2014.
The Irish had the ball under their own basket with 2.2 seconds left and there was a series of timeouts before play resumed. Akire Ogunbowale caught the inbounds pass and drove to the basket, and McCall blocked the shot from behind.
“She took a dribble, and I’m like, I’m going for it whether I get the foul or not,” McCall said. “I got a nice clean block off of it. We get the win. Whew, so I’m excited.”
Brittany McPhee scored 27 as the second-seeded Cardinal (32-5) won its eighth in a row overall. This was the third straight year Stanford and Notre Dame have met in the NCAA Tournament, with the Cardinal winning the past two in the Lexington Regional.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer referencing the Bluegrass State’s horse racing history in describing the win at Rupp Arena.
“It took us a while to get going,” she said, “but then when we got going, we were charging down that stretch and came across that finish line.”
Down 47-31 in the third quarter, Stanford surged to end Notre Dame’s 17-game winning streak.
Ogunbowale finished with a team-high 25 points, and the Irish (33-4) put the ball in her hands at the end.
“It was a screen for Arike,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of the final shot. “She was wide open and she probably could have shot it. That’s hindsight.”
The Cardinal is going to the Final Four for the 13th time, and will aim for its third national championship under VanDerveer. The Cardinal also dropped Notre Dame to 7-1 in the Elite Eight.
Among those in the crowd at Rupp Arena was Jon Samuelson, whose daughter, Karlie, scored 15 for Stanford. A day earlier, he was at the Bridgeport Regional to see another daughter, UConn star Katie Lou Samuelson, help the Huskies win their 110th straight game.
Smith finished with 15 points. After driving for a basket with 51 seconds left, she added her biggest shot for the go-ahead score.
Stanford then denied Notre Dame’s Lindsay Allen and Ogunbowale on successive attempts in the final 15 seconds to spark a wild celebration.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be back, and we’re ready to play,” said Samuelson, a senior guard.
Marina Mabrey 20 for Notre Dame, which had sought its sixth Final Four in seven seasons.
THE BIG PICTURE
Stanford once again proved no deficit was too big to overcome. The veteran-heavy Cardinal shot 12 of 26 on 3-pointers, with Samuelson and McPhee each making five. Not bad, considering Stanford shot 2 of 15 overall in the second quarter while getting outscored 23-7. ... McCall had 11 rebounds.
Notre Dame seemed to do everything right for most of the game but couldn’t stop Stanford’s perimeter game in the second half. The Irish also made just 11 of 31 shots after halftime and were topped 33-32 on the boards.
Ogunbowale was voted the Regional’s Most Outstanding Player after totaling 57 points in two games. But she was understandably disappointed at losing and said, “awards don’t really mean anything when you don’t reach the goal that you planned at the beginning of the season. But we have a good team next year.”
Rounding out the All-Tournament team was Irish teammate Allen and Stanford’s McPhee, Samuelson and Marina Mabrey.
BACK AND FORTH
Take away Norte Dame’s big second quarter and it game was about as tight as it gets. The fourth quarter alone featured six ties and 12 lead changes, with Smith twice giving Stanford the lead with clutch layups.
“I think that pass from (guard) Marta (Sniezek) was very smart,” Smith said of her game-winner. “I had a huge height advantage inside and was able to get it. That was a really good play for us.”
Stanford faces the South Carolina-Florida State winner in the Final Four in Dallas next Friday.