At Notre Dame, a postmodern post player

Riley's throwback style is back-to-basket basic, making her a force inside

Women's NCAA Tournament

March 25, 2000|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Like all those Internet claims that Bill Gates will personally give chain e-mailers $5,000 each, the traditional low-post center has become something of an urban legend in women's basketball.

Once upon a time, women's teams built their success around a dominant back-to-the-basket player like Old Dominion's Anne Donovan or Maryland's Vicky Bullett, but today's teams are just as likely to win from the perimeter in.

But, somewhere around 2: 30 this afternoon, a myth becomes somewhat real in today's second NCAA Mideast Regional. That's when Notre Dame junior Ruth Riley takes the Pyramid floor to lead the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish (27-4), the second seed in the region, against No. 11 Texas Tech (27-4), the Mideast's third seed.

Riley, a first-team All-American who shot 61 percent from the floor, is a 6-foot-5 space eater who pounds the boards, blocks shots and disrupts interior flow.

In other words, she does everything a center is supposed to do, but Riley would rather talk about the team's speed than her ability to dominate in the post.

"We need to get back in transition and play transition on offense for us to win," said Riley, a Macy, Ind., native, who averaged 16.1 points and 7.3 rebounds this season.

But her coach, Muffet McGraw, recognizes Riley for what she is, an inside force.

"Ruth is sort of an old-school type of player," said McGraw. "Most kids now want to shoot the three and play the three [small forward], and Ruth is typical in that she'd probably be happier out of the middle. She's got a nice free-throw jumper and she would like to get away from the basket and shoot some threes, and maybe next year, she'll do that. But she's a little different in that she is a back-to-the-basket type player."

Texas Tech coach Marsha Sharp, whose 1993 team won the NCAA title behind forward Sheryl Swoopes, has watched the center spot evolve from the plodding catch, turn and shoot model, to a quicker, more mobile player on the order of Riley.

"Your center today has to be athletic enough to guard out on the perimeter but also be physical enough to go inside. That's a lot to ask and you don't find a lot of players who can do that," said Sharp, who has no player taller than 6-1 in her regular seven-player rotation.

As Sharp sees it, the game has gone out on the perimeter, where stars like Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, Chamique Holdsclaw and the current Naismith Player of the Year, Tennessee's Tamika Catchings, have forged their games, making teams with legitimate inside threats like Riley so dangerous.

"When she [Riley] touches the basketball, there are a lot of good things that happen for other people," said Sharp. "She does a nice job of helping out, and one of her best attributes is the ability to pass. For a big player, that's a tough thing to learn, but she has learned and evolved."

Three Lady Raiders remain from the 1998 team that dropped a 74-59 decision to Notre Dame in a second-round game in Lubbock, Texas, when Texas Tech was the Midwest's top seed and the Irish were seeded ninth.

Revenge, of a sort, may be a theme in the first regional semifinal (ESPN, noon), where second-ranked Tennessee (30-3), the top seed, will meet fourth-seeded and 19th-ranked Virginia (25-8), the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference champion, in a renewal of one of the sport's best rivalries.

The last time the two schools met, in the 1996 East Regional final, the Lady Vols, who have won nine of the 10 games in the series, made up a 17-point, second-half deficit in Charlottesville to win, 52-46, and earn a Final Four berth on the way to the first of three straight titles.

"I always remember that the University of Virginia would always get so far and this one team would come and always beat them and that team was Tennessee, and I never liked it," said Tennessee freshman guard Kara Lawson, a Springfield, Va., native.

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