ARLINGTON, Texas — You’ve probably seen the shot: an off-balance 3-pointer from the right corner to help Notre Dame beat UConn in the 2018 NCAA semifinals.
Just two days later, the same player hit the same shot from nearly the same spot to win the NCAA Championship.
Nailing one of those shots in those pressure-cooker moments would have been enough to cement Arike Ogunbowale’s legacy in women’s basketball. But hitting both in a two-day span? That gets you on The Ellen Show with Kobe Bryant.
It got her a spot in the television competition “Dancing With the Stars.”
It led to her being awarded an ESPY for play of the year.
It elevated her into the rarefied air of athletes recognized by first-name only. Kobe. LeBron. Giannis. Kawhi. Arike.
It gave her a platform that few in the women’s game get to experience, a place in the spotlight she used to talk up the sport.
“Shout out to women’s basketball as a whole,” she said during her acceptance speech at the ESPYs. “There’s a lot of people with their opinions about us, but all I got to say is, come see us on the court.”
The court you can regularly see her on these days is within the walls of the College Park Center on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington. It’s there that Ogunbowale practices and plays her home games as a rookie for the WNBA’s Dallas Wings.
It’s there where she’s focused on building her legacy and drowning out any of the outside noise that surrounds her.
“It’s not hard for me,” the 5-foot-8 guard said. “If I’m not close to you, then all your opinions and assumptions and what you have to say really does me no good. I don’t really care, honestly.”
Ogunbowale has shown that on the court. She doesn’t let the pressure of big moments get to her. That’s no different from off the court, where people have high expectations for her based on her past accomplishments.
“Whether (pressure is) there or whether it’s not, I’m still gonna be the same person,” Ogunbowale said. “I’m still gonna play the same way so that really doesn’t affect me.”
TRANSITIONING FROM COLLEGE TO THE WNBA
Ogunbowale is used to the spotlight. Her senior year in high school she averaged over 27 points and nine rebounds per game, was a McDonald’s All-American, became a 3-time state player of the year in Wisconsin and participated in the Jordan Brand Classic game, which features the nation’s best high school seniors.
She went on to Notre Dame where she surpassed Wings teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith as the team’s all-time leading scorer. Her awards and honors accumulated each year, despite the climax of her college career coming her junior year.
“Arike obviously had a special collegiate career, particularly her junior year when she had the magical Final Four run,” Wings general manager Greg Bibb said. “But I think everyone who knows basketball realizes her career was about much more than a very special weekend. She is one of the best to ever play the game at the college level.”
Bibb said he believes her traits, characteristics and skill set will translate well to the WNBA. He called her clutch characteristics “instinctive” and something that can’t be taught.
“You just have it or you don’t, and she has it,” he said.
Wings’ head coach Bryan Agler compared her to notable clutch-shot makers like Sue Bird, Chelsea Gray and Nneka Ogwumike.
“Arike has that,” Agler said. “She wants those moments. She embraces those moments. That’s a big part of delivering, is wanting that situation.”
It’s easy for a player to become known for the first thing people knew them for, for better or for worse. For Ogunbowale, it’s her clutch shot-making ability. Whether people associate that with her identity as a player isn’t something she is worried about.
“That can be what people know me by,” she said. “That’s fine with me. I consider myself a clutch player as well. So it’s not like it’s something I’m trying to chase.”
Many around the league expect her to continue the success she had in college in the WNBA. A poll by league general manager’s prior to the season had her tied for first for who was predicted to win Rookie of the Year.
“I think that all rookies that come in that are highly recognized in college have some pressure on them,” Agler said. “I think it’s more self-pressure, even though they might not want to admit it. And that’s because the reputation they’ve got and the pressure they had from the fans back where they played.”
HOW ARIKE PLANS TO ADJUST TO THE DALLAS WINGS
Transitioning from college to pros brings an inevitable adjustment period for even the greatest of college athletes. Agler said that rookies like Ogunbowale are in their “infancy stage” and are still trying to understand the game on a professional level.
“I think the biggest thing for all these rookies that come in is to understand the quality of play and the people they are playing against,” Agler said. “She is going through some of that, but Arike is very coachable.”
Ogunbowale cited the age difference as something she’s had to adjust to while playing in the WNBA. She said that playing against players who have been in the league for over 10 years brings a higher level of competition.
“Obviously, I have high expectations for myself but like I said, it’s a learning curve so, you know, (I) just take it day by day.”
The Wings are experiencing some growing pains of their own. They are a relatively young team as 10 of the 14 players have three or fewer years of experience in the league. And they’re being coached by Agler, who’s in his first year coaching for Dallas.
Currently 10th out of 12 in the league standings, they’re adjusting to life without All-WNBA center Liz Cambage, who had a career year with the Wings last season, and is now with the Las Vegas Aces. Dallas is also awaiting the return of Diggins-Smith, their star guard who is out on maternity leave.
Ogunbowale is doing what she can to improve the team’s standing and prove she was worthy of the No. 5 overall pick Dallas used on her. So far so good as she leads the team in points per game (12.9), including a team-high 23 points in that win over the Sun. She had a career-high 25 in the game before that, an 86-68 loss to Las Vegas, on June 22.
Might she be feeling pressure from the outside to carry the team?
“If people think they’re putting pressure on me, I don’t really feel it,” Ogunbowale said.
Ogunbowale said she stays grounded by only listening to what her family, friends and team has to say. But whether it’s on the court or off the court, having the spotlight on her is nothing new to her.
“It’s been like that for awhile. It’s a blessing being in this position but I don’t really let anything go to my head,” she said. “I just keep doing what I do, playing basketball and having fun.”
Arike being Arike.
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