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Crown Belongs to Irish

Women's final: Riley's two free throws provide margin in 68-66 NCAA victory over Purdue.

April 02, 2001|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — In the closest finish to an NCAA women's basketball championship game since 1994, Notre Dame made its final play pay off and Purdue, seconds later, didn't.

That was the difference in the first all-Indiana final that produced the first women's championship for the Irish, 68-66, over the Boilermakers in front of 20,551 Sunday at the Savvis Center.

Ruth Riley drew a foul inside with 5.8 seconds left to give Notre Dame, which had trailed by 12 in the first half, a chance to take the lead with the score tied, 66-66.

An 80% free-throw shooter for the season, the 6-foot-5 Riley--later announced as the Final Four's most outstanding player--made both dramatically, the first one bouncing off the front of the rim but going in, the second one coming after Purdue called time out to try to ice her.

Standing at the line, Riley said she recalled a scene from the film "Hoosiers."

"Remember when 'Ollie' had to make those two huge free throws in the movie?" she asked about 200 reporters.

"I thought of that--and I didn't have to put 'em up underhanded," she quipped.

Purdue then had to go the distance in 5.8 seconds. Notre Dame's Kelly Siemon--who had lobbed the ball in to Riley on the game-turning play--pressured Purdue's in-bounds pass that was supposed to go to point guard Kelly Komara.

It didn't, and a series of rushed passes awkwardly got the ball to the Boilermakers' All-American, Katie Douglas, just behind the free-throw line.

Her left-handed jumper was in the air as the horn went off and it bounced off the rim.

Two plays to decide a national championship, and on each one, everyone in the building knew for whom the ball was headed.

"No, it wasn't a game-winning play, it's the same play we've been running all season," Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw said. "It's called: 'Get the ball to Ruth.'

Riley, an All-American who scored 28 points in 35 minutes with 13 rebounds and seven blocks, briefly bobbled the lob from Siemon.

"I knew my teammates would look for me and when I saw the ball in the air, I knew I just had to catch it."

Purdue's play went awry, as a tearful Douglas said afterward.

"I don't know what happened--Kelly was supposed to get the inbound, but we didn't execute it as well as we should have," she said.

"I got a good look with the shot, it just didn't fall for me.

"Ruth Riley is a great player. If she wasn't blocking our shots, she was altering shots. It was her night. We did a great job on the boards too. We had 17 offensive rebounds [to Notre Dame's 11]."

Purdue built early leads that reached 19-7 and 32-26 at the break.

But those leads came against an Irish team that rallied Friday from a 47-31 first-half deficit to win, 90-75, against defending champion Connecticut.

On Sunday, Notre Dame scored the first eight points of the second half, Riley giving the Irish its first lead, 34-32, with two free throws. She was 10 for 14 from the line.

But Purdue rebounded with its best stretch of the game, riding its two freshmen, Shalicia Hurns and Shereka Wright, who scored 17 points each.

In the closing minutes, Wright gave the Boilermakers a 63-62 lead, then Douglas made a dramatic play that brought Purdue partisans to their feet when she stole a pass and converted the ensuing layup while being fouled hard by Siemon.

Douglas completed the three-point play for a 66-64 Purdue lead with 1:22 left.

It was the last of 18 points for Douglas, who played all 40 minutes, had five assists and five steals. On 60 of Purdue's 73 possessions, Douglas handled the ball.

Then it was time for Riley.

First, she pulled Notre Dame into a 66-66 tie with a shot inside with 58 seconds left.

Then she closed in on history, her free throws spelling the most noteworthy heroics since Charlotte Smith made a three-point shot with 0.07 of a second left to beat Louisiana Tech, 60-59, in the 1994 final.

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