Make that two for Schlarman's Peoples

Make that two for Schlarman's Peoples

DANVILLE — As Arike Ogunbowale sank a running three-pointer with less than a second to play in Sunday night's NCAA women's basketball national championship game against Mississippi State, plenty of individuals had reason to be excited.

That list started with the Notre Dame junior and her teammates and coaches, who had captured the Irish program's first NCAA tournament title since 2001 by way of a 61-58 triumph.

But the thrill of Notre Dame's stunning victory extended well beyond the doors of Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. It also spread past the Irish's home base in South Bend, Ind.

It trickled into Danville, even. Specifically, into the house of Anaya Peoples' grandparents.

Thirty-six days after Peoples was part of an IHSA Class 1A girls' basketball state title victory as a member of the Schlarman Hilltoppers, she watched her future college squad notch its second-ever national championship.

"It was crazy and chaotic," Peoples said, recalling the atmosphere among her family and friends after Ogunbowale's desperation shot secured the end result. "We all started screaming and jumping around. It was awesome. I'm so happy for (the Irish). They're so deserving."

Peoples was joined by her parents, grandparents and Schlarman teammate Sydney Gouard in witnessing Notre Dame overcome a 15-point deficit — the largest ever for a club that went on to win the crown — to hand coach Muffet McGraw a long-awaited second title.

The Schlarman junior verbally committed to McGraw in June 2017, choosing the Irish from a field of 40 college institutions.

If Peoples had any doubts about her selection, those were erased Sunday.

"There were no doubts," she said with a laugh. "They didn't have the best luck with all those injuries, but they played for each other and played for the community."

McGraw was leading the walking wounded for quite a while, making this success all the more improbable.

Four different Irish athletes have suffered an ACL injury dating back to the 2017 NCAA tournament. And despite Notre Dame earning a No. 1 seed in this year's showcase, it would have to get past consistent contender and No. 1 overall seed Connecticut.

Ogunbowale played a huge hand in that as well, nailing a long jumper for the decisive points in a 91-89 overtime triumph on Friday over Connecticut.

But Peoples said it wasn't even at that point she knew the Irish would get the job done on April Fools' Day.

"At the beginning of the season, I knew they were awesome," Peoples said. "They fight so hard for everything. They will not back down, no matter what."

That's a mentality Peoples has garnered herself, competing for the 99-student Schlarman squad over the last three seasons.

The Hilltoppers have been a talented group under coach Keith Peoples, Anaya's father, in that time frame. But Schlarman suffered a 1A super-sectional exit in 2016 and a sectional semifinal defeat in 2017.

And the Hilltoppers were no lock to take home this season's state crown, the first in program history. To even get to Illinois State's Redbird Arena, they had to oust reigning 1A champion Annawan in a super-sectional.

In that victory exists a parallel between Anaya Peoples' current team and her future outfit. Schlarman had to dethrone the Goliath in Annawan, while Notre Dame was required to do the same with UConn.

"We knew at the beginning of the year, if anybody was going to beat (the Huskies), it was going to be (the Irish)," Peoples said.

The News-Gazette's girls' basketball Player of the Year the last two seasons maintained that faith even as the Irish stumbled through a three-point second quarter in the final and trailed Mississippi State 30-17 at halftime.

And that belief was rewarded when Notre Dame's Jessica Shepard led all scorers with 19 points and Ogunbowale added 18, including her clutch triple.

"We knew they were definitely a second-half team," Peoples said. "Coach McGraw makes good decisions at halftime."

Notre Dame doesn't project to go on a downswing after Sunday's win, either.

Only Kristina Nelson and Kathryn Westbeld will graduate later this year, leaving such stars as Shepard, Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey hanging around South Bend.

Again, this is a mirror image of what is happening at Schlarman, as the Hilltoppers return the entire roster from their run to state.

McGraw also is bringing in four highly-touted prospects for the 2018-19 campaign. Among those are Katlyn Gilbert, the nation's seventh-ranked point guard out of Heritage (Ind.) Christian School — and a close friend and AAU teammate of Peoples.

"They're going to be an even better team with a point guard coming in," Peoples said. "It's going to be great."

So Peoples conceivably could capture two consecutive high school championships before heading to a college program that's primed to contend for a Division I trophy.

That being said, which moment had the youngster more excited: Schlarman or Notre Dame winning it all?

"That's really tough," Peoples said. "I was talking to my mom during the (national championship) game with 30 seconds left, and I was like, 'I don't think I can watch this.' My heart was pounding so hard. I'm definitely just as excited for them as I was when we won the state championship."