Moment Of Ruth

Notre Dame rode the shoulders of All-America center Ruth Riley to its first NCAA championship
Notre Dame rode the shoulders of All-America center Ruth Riley to its first NCAA championship
April 08, 2001

Like a harmonic hoops convergence, at the same time ESPN Classic was airing the film Hoosiers on Sunday night, its sister station ESPN was broadcasting another high-stakes battle for basketball bragging rights in the state of Indiana. When Notre Dame and Purdue faced off at the Savvis Center in St. Louis for the NCAA women's championship, the many Indianans who view the 1986 Gene Hackman film at every opportunity had a tough choice to make.

If they went with the live game, they got as much drama as anything Hollywood could have concocted. In a matchup that featured two senior All-Americas raised in Indiana--the Boilermakers' 6'1" shooting guard, Katie Douglas, and the Fighting Irish's 6'5" center, Ruth Riley--and two schools only 90 miles of cornfields apart, the outcome was not determined until the final 5.8 seconds, which Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw's 10-year-old son, Murphy, would describe as "scary."

He had good reason to be frightened. In the Big East tournament final three weeks earlier, the Irish had been in a similar nip and tuck game that was decided when Connecticut's Sue Bird weaved through traffic and hit a fadeaway runner that bounced off the rim and fell in at the buzzer for a 78-76 win. On Sunday, after a pair of free throws by Riley gave Notre Dame a 68-66 lead with just under six seconds remaining, the Irish held their breath as a 17-foot attempt by Douglas bounced harmlessly off the rim as time ran out.

"What more fitting way to win the game with all the hype about Hoosiers?" said Riley, who made 10 of 14 free throws and finished with 28 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks. "Somebody asked me what my favorite part of that movie was, and I said when Ollie hit those two free throws, and I got put in the same situation. At least I didn't have to shoot underhand."

Sister Maureen Flynn, who taught Notre Dame point guard Niele Ivey at Cor Jesu High in St. Louis and who was watching from the stands with colleagues, admitted having a small crisis of faith as the game wound down. "We were praying in those last five seconds," Flynn admitted. "But we should have trusted more."

After all, as Riley noted later, this team had seemed destined for a championship from Day One. Aside from senior forward Kelley Siemon's suffering a broken left hand on Jan. 13 (which didn't stop her from scoring 15 points in a victory over UConn two days later) and two losses by a total of three points, the Irish had encountered virtually no bumps on their road to the Final Four, only milestones. They had sold out a home game for the first time, ascended to the top of the polls for the first time and defeated Connecticut for the first time. On that last occasion Huskies coach Geno Auriemma told McGraw, "This is what beating Tennessee for the first time felt like for us. That's when we knew we had arrived."

Notre Dame also enjoyed smaller triumphs. "Usually there are [negative] things that occur during the season--someone is late to practice or unhappy with her playing time or doesn't understand her role--but this year I have not had to call a single team meeting," said McGraw, the AP and Naismith Coach of the Year, who has the school fight song programmed into her doorbell at home. "I have gotten no complaints from professors. In fact, I've had faculty call me and say, 'Your freshmen are outstanding [students]!' Everything has gone smoothly. We can't even yell at the players because they do everything we ask."

The team's successful chemistry was no accident. Ever since McGraw spent an unhappy year with her first big-time recruit, Michelle Marciniak, a flashy point guard who transferred after the 1991-92 season to Tennessee, the Irish coach has taken a different approach to recruiting. "Early on in my career I wanted the best players I could get; I didn't think about chemistry," says McGraw, now in her 14th season in South Bend. "My year with Michelle was the only losing season I've had at Notre Dame, and it wasn't worth it. Since then I've gone after kids who are first and foremost unselfish, willing to sacrifice. I ask players what they think about recruits. 'Do you think she'll fit in?' That approach has really worked in our favor."

Another thing that has carried the Irish from contender to champion has been the development of Riley, who came in from the no-stoplight northern Indiana town of Macy (pop. 250) with a lot of potential but not much aggressiveness. Known for being soft and foul-prone in her first three seasons--during which she fouled out 16 times--Riley has emerged as a classic back-to-the basket post player. She can run the floor, move without the ball and pass out of the double team. She is no longer easily lured into fouls or mistakes.

"She's become a smarter player, not only in terms of staying on the floor and not fouling but also in terms of finding her open teammates and knowing when it's her time to perform," says Charlotte Sting coach Anne Donovan, who coached Riley on the 1999 U.S. World University Games team. "There have been critical points in games when she knows that she has to take it on her shoulders. I don't know that she's always been so willing to take on that burden. But this year she's proved she is, and she's won games that way."

You could see that in the Irish's much-anticipated rubber match in the semifinals against defending champion UConn, which had beaten its previous tournament opponents by an average of 37.5 points despite the absence of senior All-Americas Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph, who were injured earlier in the season. Notre Dame trailed the Huskies by 16 points in the first half, and no women's team had ever made up that big a deficit and won at the Final Four. Riley, though, scored 15 of her 18 points and added two of her five blocks after intermission as the Irish stormed back for a 90-75 victory.

On Sunday, Purdue jumped to an 11-point lead before Riley again got Notre Dame back on track. "She was unstoppable," said Boilermakers point guard Kelly Komara. "We threw three or four people at her, but nothing worked. She is an incredible player who can dominate a game."

In St. Louis, Riley continued to pile up hardware attesting to that fact. She added Final Four Most Outstanding Player, AP Player of the Year and Kodak All-America honors to a haul that already included Big East Player of the Year, Big East Defensive Player of the Year (her third), Academic All-America and Naismith Player of the Year. It's a shame that no one in basketball gives out awards for congeniality, hospitality and plain good manners, for she would win those too. Riley, the most intimidating presence in the women's college game, likes to bake cakes for her teammates on their birthdays and carries around a binder filled with fan mail and other correspondence she needs to reply to. "She answers all of it," said McGraw while watching Riley receive her Kodak award last Thursday. "I'll bet you anything she'll have a thank you note to the Kodak people in the mail by tomorrow morning."

By Sunday night Riley's hands--so bruised and scabbed from her battles in the paint that teammates were joking that she could be the "before" model in a hand-cream ad--looked as if they could use some lighter duty, like writing. As she cut the tape off her ankles, she could think of all kinds of people she needed to acknowledge for this weekend, for her college career. "I'd like to thank my family, my coaches," she began. "Oh, my gosh, there are so many."

Now that's a Hollywood ending.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)