Fighting back, Irish capture NCAA title

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

Ncaa Tournament

April 02, 2001|By MILTON KENT | By MILTON KENT,SUN STAFF

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

In the best women's final since the 1991 title game, in which Tennessee beat Virginia in overtime, Notre Dame's Ruth Riley sank two free throws with 5.8 seconds to go to give the Irish a 68-66 victory. Riley, named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, finished with a game-high 28 points to nail down the storied school's first basketball championship.

"This is the only thing I wanted," said Riley, who also - pulled down 13 rebounds. "To be able to share this with my teammates is unbelievable. ... We worked so hard that it was fitting to end the season this way."

Purdue's Katie Douglas, who led the Boilermakers with 18 points, missed a desperation jumper above the foul line that would have forced overtime. A starter on the 1999 championship team, Douglas also had seven rebounds, five steals and five assists as her brilliant career came to an end.

The second-ranked Irish (34-2), who lost two games by a total of three points, trailed through most of the game, until Jeneka Joyce tied the score with 7:55 to go on two free throws.

From there, the two teams traded the lead five times, with five ties in between. Indeed until Riley hit a short jumper inside with one minute remaining to tie the score at 66, it appeared that Douglas' steal of Kelley Siemon and three-point play would give Purdue (31-7) its second national title in three years.

Instead, Riley, who was fouled by Shereka Wright in the waning seconds, sank her first free throw. After a timeout, she made the second.

Notre Dame's lone in-state player in the all-Indiana final, Riley was a constant source of offense for a team that went cold from three-point range. Notre Dame made it to the final on the strength of 8-for-11 long-range shooting in the semifinals against Connecticut, but was 1-for-10 in the final against Purdue.

Alicia Ratay, Notre Dame's second-leading scorer with a 13-point average, was off her game and in foul trouble all night. Ratay, who had 20 points in the semifinals, was 1-for-6 and scored only three points.

But three other Irish players -Erika Haney (13 points), St. Louis native Niele Ivey (12) and Siemon (10) - chipped in with Riley to score in double figures.

That turned out to be enough to offset the inspired play of Purdue freshmen Wright and Shalicia Hurns and another solid performance by Douglas.

So now add the names Muffet McGraw, Riley and Ivey to those of Rockne, Leahy and Montana in Notre Dame's rich athletic lore. The title came in McGraw's 14th season as coach and in her second trip to the Final Four. She also got Notre Dame there in 1997.

"I don't know when I've been this excited," McGraw said. "What can you say about Ruth Riley? What clutch on the free-throw line to make both of those free throws."

Once Notre Dame's Jeneka Joyce hit two free throws with 7:55 to tie the score at 55, the two teams traded shots for the remainder of the game, with neither team gaining more than a two-point lead.

Trailing by six at halftime, Notre Dame ripped off the first eight points of the second half, with Riley dropping in a short jumper at the shot-clock buzzer and two free throws to give the Irish their first lead, 34-32, with 17:06 to go. That lead was short-lived, however, as Douglas converted on a steal.

Ivey was fouled on a put-back and converted the free throw to give Notre Dame a three-point lead, but Douglas hit a three-pointer from the left wing to even the score at 37.

Center Camille Cooper then hit a baseline turnaround with 15:25, but then drew her fourth foul a few seconds later, and was forced to the bench for eight minutes. That gave the Irish a chance to catch their breath.

Ratay, who had torched top-ranked Connecticut on Friday night with four three-pointers, was herself forced to the bench with four fouls with 13:40 to go, but re-turned to hit a three with 4:02 to go to tie the score at 62. It was the only three Notre Dame would hit all night.

On defense, Purdue handled Riley in the early going, limiting her touches, as she could only muster a free throw in the first five minutes.

Meanwhile, the Boilermakers began to find the range on the outside, as Wright, who received a number of national high school player-of-the-year honors last season, hit a three-pointer from the top of the key, while Douglas hit consecutive threes to give Purdue a 19-7 lead.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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