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."
April 8, 2001
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
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.
If basketball gave out awards for congeniality and good manners,
Riley would win those too.