Fighting back, Irish capture NCAA title

Riley's late free throws defeat Purdue, 68-66

NCAA Tournament

The Final Four

April 02, 2001|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS - If the thriller that Notre Dame and Purdue staged for the women's NCAA championship last night is indicative of how basketball is played in Indiana, then here's hoping Hoosier residents let the rest of the country in on the fun.

And in the end, it was Irish center Ruth Riley, the only Indiana native on the Notre Dame roster, who provided the margin of victory, two free throws with 5.8 seconds left to give the second-ranked Irish the school's first national basketball title with a 68-66 win over No. 9-ranked Purdue.

Riley, voted the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, calmly dropped in the foul shots to cap a wonderful night in her final college game, with 28 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocked shots before 20,551 at the Savvis Center.

"She was big inside. We knew it would be a battle inside," Purdue center Camille Cooper said. "I kind of wish we would have been able to play a little more, but that's the way the ball bounced, and you credit Ruth for playing very well."

Said fellow Boilermaker Katie Douglas, who scored a team-high 18 points in her final college game, "[Riley] played a great game. If she was not blocking a shot, she was altering a shot. She was getting a lot of rebounds and it was just her night."

Oddly enough, even in the moment of her greatest success, Riley's mind locked in on the last time she was in that situation, the Big East tournament championship game against Connecticut, where she missed one of two free throws with five seconds left.

That miss opened the door for Connecticut's Sue Bird to go up the floor and drop in a buzzer-beating jumper to give the Huskies the conference title.

And although neither of her two shots last night dropped in cleanly, Riley got the job done on a much bigger stage.

"As crazy as this might sound, I wasn't really nervous," Riley said. "I was in the same situation with Connecticut and did not pull through. I practiced since then, and [last night] I was pretty confident in my shot, and I got a lucky bounce and was able to pull through."

Riley, a 6-foot-5 native of Macy, Ind., drew the foul on Purdue freshman Shereka Wright after making an impressive catch of Kelley Siemon's lob pass toward the baseline in traffic with three Boilermakers surrounding her.

"I was looking for my double double with turnovers, so I just threw the ball up," said Siemon, who chipped in with 10 points. "Ruth has amazing hands and great timing and there were three people in there, but that was the game plan, to go right into Ruth. So regardless of the people around her, I was just going to throw the ball up. She made an amazing catch and it was, well, perfect."

Riley's play was about the only perfect thing on the night for Notre Dame, which trailed the entire first half and deep into the second, as things were slightly off-kilter.

For one thing, senior point guard Niele Ivey, the pulse of the team and the force behind their 90-75 comeback win over top-ranked Connecticut in Friday's semifinal, was hampered throughout the evening with a right ankle sprain she suffered two day earlier.

Ivey turned the ankle again in the shoot-around before last night's game and looked less than 100 percent, yet gritted out a 12-point, four-assist performance, while playing all 40 minutes.

"I wasn't really hitting from the outside, but I have so many other things I can do well. And I decided to try to do it on defense or penetrating and creating stuff around other players that were stepping up," said Ivey, who hit 5-for-13 from the field.

Also, Notre Dame, which came in shooting an NCAA-best 47 percent from three-point range, was cold from beyond the arc, hitting just one of 10 three-point attempts, after connecting on eight of 11 threes Friday in overcoming a 12-point halftime deficit.

And that lone three came from the hand of the Irish's best three-point shooter, sophomore Alicia Ratay, who connects at a career 51 percent from three-point range. Ratay was in foul trouble for most of the night, but hit her only three with 4:02 to go to tie the score at 62.

"I thought, `Hallelujah!'" McGraw said. "It was such a big shot for us and I was pleased with her courage in taking the shot."

The Irish (34-2) and Boilermakers (31-7) staged the best women's title game since the 1993 final, when Sheryl Swoopes poured in a record 47 points to lead Texas Tech to an 84-82 win over Ohio State, which got 28 from Katie Smith.

But while two players dominated on that afternoon, the two teams last night played a taut thriller, where the Irish trailed for most of the game. Riley was held to one point in the first 8:23 as Purdue took a 19-7 lead. The Boilermakers led 32-26 at halftime.

But Notre Dame freshman reserve Jeneka Joyce made two foul shots with 7:55 left in regulation to tie the score at 55. From there, the score would be tied five times, with the lead changing hands three times down the stretch.

"It was a great game for TV, and certainly an entertaining game to watch from our point of view," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "We've been in a couple of close games lately, so it was great for us to have a game like that to win the national championship."

Purdue's Douglas missed a desperation jumper above the foul line that would have forced overtime, and given the Boilermakers a chance to claim their second title in three years.

Instead, the luck of the Irish, an ending right out of a movie and a perfect center gave the spoils to Notre Dame.

"It's kind of funny, but what more fitting way to win the game with all the hype about the state of Indiana and the movie `Hoosiers,' right?" Riley said. "Somebody asked me what my favorite part of that movie was and I said when he hit two free throws - and I just got put in the same situation."

And just like the movie, Ruth Riley came through.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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