SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame has lived a dream for two years, winning a national title a season ago and ascending to No. 1 for a second time already this season. And yet the Fighting Irish kept finding reasons to wake up in a cold sweat after playing Louisville.
So the Fighting Irish figured out how to make the most of the nightmare.
It wasn't always artistic. It wasn't ever particularly efficient, right down to letting a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter dwindle to just two points. It wasn't a dream performance by any stretch.
But the result was ideal.
And No. 1 Notre Dame's 82-68 win against No. 2 Louisville not only solidified the ranking, it killed off Notre Dame's lone remaining bogeyman.
It was the kind of day when Arike Ogunbowale flirted with scoring in single digits for the first time in nearly a year. At least until she did what she does with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter and a clutch jumper in the final minute on her way to a game-high 30 points.
By the time she hit her final two free throws after an intentional foul in the closing seconds, she had outscored even Louisville's Asia Durr, who finished with 29 points.
But more telling than those familiar heroics was that it was the kind of day when Ogunbowale first brought the crowd to its feet with her passing, lobbing layups to Turner in transition.
More telling, too, was Jessica Shepard chasing miss after miss when things weren't going well.
Each found some way to take control of the nightmare.
The Fighting Irish entered Thursday's game with a 49-2 record against the rest of the country since the start of last season. But they were 0-2 against Louisville in that span, including a 33-point loss on the road almost exactly one year ago. The Fighting Irish also lost twice to UConn in that span, including earlier this season on the same court in South Bend, but they won the meeting that mattered most against their old rival in the Final Four a season ago.
Louisville, on the other hand, remained a puzzle unsolved.
And for stretches of the first half, it looked like it might remain that way. The nation's third-most prolific offense and its second-most efficient field goal shooting team, the Fighting Irish had more turnovers (11) than field goals (eight) in the opening two quarters.
"We really, really just did not take care of the ball," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "Credit their defense for most of them, but a lot of them, I just was really disappointed."
The problem for the Fighting Irish the past two seasons is that few opponents match up physically quite the way the Cardinals do. Where some opponents might have one player who can stay with Ogunbowale, for example, the Cardinals have four. They didn't even need to risk using up Durr's energy because they could use Arica Carter, Dana Evans and Jazmine Jones. They have big, agile bodies to stay with Shepard and Brianna Turner.
It was telling that midway through the second quarter, Durr had scored 16 points seemingly without breaking a sweat, while Ogunbowale had to work the full length of the court to get anything going. Louisville's lead grew as big as seven points in the second quarter.
"We weren't getting any flow in the offense. We didn't have any rhythm in the offense," McGraw said. "We were putting it on the floor a little too much. We were a little out of sync with what we were running. I didn't think we were getting the motion that we needed.
"And then defensively, really disappointed with the way we guarded Durr. She had a great first half."
Crucially, however, Notre Dame also had as many offensive rebounds as turnovers in that first half. It was that effort, best embodied by Shepard that made this unlike the game played a year ago Friday in Louisville. Shepard had 13 rebounds in the first half, four fewer than Louisville, and finished with seven points and 15 boards to help Notre Dame outrebound Louisville 48-32. Ever the perfectionist, McGraw noted she could be a bit more of a force on the offensive glass, but the rebounding work and deft interior passing free Turner next to her to attack.
"I think they're just a great complementary pair," McGraw said of the two posts who are playing together for the first time this season.
The Fighting Irish kept coming, kept putting shots on the rim and kept going for rebounds. It was the only thing the Cardinals couldn't contend with and they paid dearly for it. By halftime, Evans and Carter each had three fouls, Jones had two after playing sparingly and three other Louisville players also had two fouls, including Durr. The foul trouble never relented.
"When Carter got the fouls -- she's a big key to their team, she makes them go," McGraw said. "She allows Durr to take time off the point. And then when Evans got into foul trouble, they really didn't have the backup point guard. ... They're just such an aggressive man-to-man team, and we wanted to attack them to make them foul us."
Louisville coach Jeff Walz said that, while secretly wondering at one point if he'd have to put his pre-teen daughter in the game to keep five players on the court, he told his players to maintain their defensive energy in the second half and not worry about fouls. Still, the reactions slowed half a beat, the space opened up an extra inch or two -- enough for Ogunbowale to take over.
She doesn't need much of an invitation. She scored five points in the blowout loss at Louisville a season ago. She scored 26 in the second half Thursday.
"Just try to be aggressive," Ogunbowale said. "They were getting a lot of fouls, so we were trying to attack them."
Notre Dame won the championship a season ago by finding a way to make things work, not letting myriad injuries derail its season. Thursday night, it passed the only test still outstanding in this run.
And it did it by leaning into the nightmare.