- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Notre Dame has been reminded time and again this season that there are more important things in life than basketball. And that any game, even one in which the winner goes on and the loser goes home, is ultimately just a game.
But oh, what a game this was.
Behind a career-high 35 points from senior guard Charel Allen, fifth-seeded Notre Dame recovered after losing a lead in the last minute of regulation and rallied from a five-point deficit in overtime to defeat 4-seed Oklahoma 79-75. With the win, Notre Dame's four seniors advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time and await top-seeded Tennessee on Sunday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET).
Allen's performance was one for the ages, and certainly the top performance of the first two rounds of this year's tournament. Given the back-and-forth nature of the contest at Mackey Arena, it topped even the 44 points Stanford's Candice Wiggins scored Monday.
"It's incredibly rewarding to have your team leave it all out there, to play as hard as they can, to continue to fight back after losing the lead," Muffet McGraw said. "You know, they go up five in overtime and we just never gave up. And I think that is something -- we haven't faced a lot of adversity on the court. We've faced plenty of it off the court. But I think that prepared us for it. They're fighters and now they know this is how we can win."
None more so than Allen, an unsung first-team All-Big East guard who makes her basketball living hitting mid-range jumpers and getting to the basket off the dribble.
With less than a minute to play in regulation and Notre Dame up 65-63, Lindsay Schrader pulled down one of just 12 offensive rebounds the Fighting Irish had in 45 minutes. The ball soon found its way into Allen's hands, but under pressure from Oklahoma guard Jenna Plumley, the senior star lost control of the ball and watched it roll out of bounds.
After Plumley found Courtney Paris inside for the tying basket with less than 10 seconds to play, Allen's last-second jumper found both sides of the rim before it bounced away and sent the game to overtime. By the time Oklahoma grabbed a quick 70-65 lead in the extra session, the Fighting Irish seemed likely to be out of fight entirely.
That was, until Allen, who hit 13 3-pointers in her team's first 32 games this season, pulled up from just in front of her team's bench and hit her third 3-pointer of the night. Never mind that according to assistant coach Jonathan Tsipis, the play in question was actually run to the wrong side of the court and at the wrong defender.
"There was no hesitation," Tsipis said of Allen's shot. "Some of our younger kids, we kind of talk about the importance of the game. We don't have to talk to that with Charel. She's going to step up. The North Carolina game, she had four 3s last year [in a second-round NCAA tournament loss]. That's not the main part of her game, but that's what they gave her tonight. She knocked two down early and I tell you what, just that basket, whether it was a 2 or a 3, gave us some life."
And it was equally fitting that eight of the 11 points that followed for Notre Dame came from sophomore guard Ashley Barlow. Saddled with foul trouble that kept her on the bench for much of the first half, Barlow put up half her 16 points in the overtime period.
In the span of a few weeks in February, Notre Dame lost standout freshman forward Devereaux Peters to a season-ending knee injury and dealt with even more consequential events after both Barlow and sophomore Erica Williamson lost grandparents.
"I guess you could say he spoiled me, but not really," Barlow said with a smile halfway between mischievous and melancholy in describing her late grandfather. "But yeah, he did, because I was his first granddaughter. It would be a thing where I would ask for something and he'll look at me like, 'No, I'm not doing that for you.' And then two minutes later, he'd be like, 'Here you go," and he'd give it to me. He came to everything that he could come to. And my grandmother, she still comes. I mean, I think this is what's keeping her going is watching us play, her grandchildren."
Barlow learned of her grandfather's death the morning of her team's game at Rutgers on Feb. 19. She played that night and then returned home to Indianapolis to be with her family. Much to her surprise, the entire team bussed down for the wake the day before a game at DePaul in a show of support for a member of their family and her family.
"This entire year, it's been a huge task trying to stay concentrated, stay focused," Williamson said. "Dev tore her ACL and Ashley and I both had tragedies strike our families. It brought us together and it made us realize there are more things in life than just basketball."
Which in an odd way might have made it that much easier for the team to handle the most stressful of basketball environments, battling an equal opponent and watching Allen and Paris stage one of the best outside-inside duels any fan could ever hope to see.
"I think the funniest part was during one of the timeouts in overtime, as we're walking to the bench, I saw Chad [Thrailkill] from Oklahoma look down and just smile," Tsipis said. "It's a great feeling to be a part of a game like that. I mean, they're thinking Courtney Paris is playing her heart out; Jenna Plumley is playing her heart out. And we're thinking can Charel Allen carry us a little bit more? It's two probably Hall of Fame coaches battling each other with changing defenses and different sets and things like that.
"I've been in a lot games, and that's got to be right up there with the top couple."
Late in the game, with the outcome still very much in doubt, seniors Amanda Tsipis and Melissa D'Amico locked arms on the end of the bench. Adrenaline-fueled smiles on their faces, they watched classmates Allen and Tulyah Gaines and younger players decide their fate. Tsipis hadn't played and D'Amico had played just six minutes, but both were riding the same ups and downs as their teammates on the court. Notre Dame lost as a team off the court this season, and they won as a team on the court Tuesday.
"I think just the entire season, with things that have happened just as a team, we've realized we've got to have fun when we play," Williamson said. "Because you never know what day is going to be your last."
In the only thing it knew it could control, Notre Dame made sure Tuesday was not its last day on the basketball court. And perhaps that's the beauty of the game.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.