March 24, 2001
By JOHN MOSSMAN
AP Sports Writer
DENVER (AP) – Not even the nation’s best defense could slow down Notre Dame’s All-America center Ruth Riley.
When Riley wasn’t scoring against a double-team or grabbing rebounds, she was dealing deft passes to her teammates.
Riley scored 18 of her 24 points in the second half, leading top-seeded Notre Dame over fifth-seeded Utah 69-54 Saturday night and into the NCAA Midwest Regional final.
Riley’s 14 rebounds tied her season high, and her six assists marked a career best.
“I thought Ruth did a great job of handling the double team and kicking the ball out,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. “She found the open man tonight. She got her career high in assists, had a double-double and just played a great game.”
Riley said she “figured Utah would double-team me, like a lot of teams have. They were taking me out of the offense early, but we are still a very talented team. It’s good to have teammates who can knock down those shots.”
Notre Dame (31-2), which matched the school record for victories in a season, also got 15 points from point guard Niele Ivey and 11 from Alicia Ratay.
Erin Gibbons led Utah (28-4) with 14 points. Kristina Andersen had nine points, all in the first half.
Utah coach Elaine Elliott said Riley’s passing “hurt us every time. There’s no room for error. If there’s a breakdown, she’ll find the open player. We played a great team. They have so many weapons, and they just wore us down.”
The Fighting Irish, who battled for the nation’s No. 1 ranking all season before finishing second to Connecticut, overcame an early four-point deficit, built a seven-point halftime advantage and gradually pushed their lead to 19 late in the game.
Utah entered the game as the nation’s best defensive team, holding opponents to an average of 50 points, but Notre Dame was too talented. The Irish shot 47 percent compared to Utah’s 36 percent and outrebounded the Utes 41-28.
“When we focused inside, Notre Dame hit outside shots,” Utah guard Lindsay Herbert said. “When we focused outside, they got the ball to Riley.”
The 6-foot-5 Riley scored 12 of her team’s first 13 points in the second half.
“I really had not done a lot in the first half,” Riley said. “My teammates said they were going to look for me more in the second half. I think I needed to post up a little stronger and play more aggressively.”
Ivey said Riley “dominates the game, and Coach told us at halftime to make sure we were looking for her. We made sure we pounded the ball inside the first five minutes of the second half.”
Ivey’s 3-pointer made it 50-40 with 9:30 left in the game. Three minutes later, Riley’s two free throws expanded Notre Dame’s lead to 60-44, and two more free throws by Riley made it 67-48 with 2:20 remaining.
Notre Dame had little success early in the game trying to jam the ball inside to Riley, the first-team All-American and Naismith Women’s College Player of the Year.
“We weren’t able to go inside as much as we wanted to in the first half,” McGraw said. “We did a better job in the second half.”
Three baskets by Kristina Andersen helped keep Utah in contention early, and Erin Gibbons’ long 3-pointer gave the Utes a 17-13 lead with 10:05 left in the half.
The Irish responded with an 11-2 run which started on Riley’s putback of a missed 3-pointer by Ratay. Moments later, Ratay made a 3-pointer on a kickout pass from Riley. Ratay then hit a pullup jumper, Riley made two free throws and Ericka Haney a driving layup for a 24-19 lead with 5:42 remaining in the half.
Baskets by Andersen and Lindsay Herbert drew Utah within a point, but back-to-back 3-pointers by Ivey and Ratay made it 30-23.
The Irish, who shot 52 percent in the half compared to Utah’s 38 percent, led 32-25 at intermission.
Utah lost its best defender and third-best scorer, Amy Ewert, for more than six minutes to foul trouble early in the second half.
Despite Riley’s early second-half heroics, Utah’s Gibbons and Katherine McColl kept the game close until Riley fed Haney for a layup. Haney was fouled and missed the free throw, but Notre Dame got the rebound and Ivey hit a 3-pointer for a 10-point lead.
Utah got no closer than eight points after that.
Utah, which had won 17 of its previous 18 games and which upset Iowa 78-69 on Monday to reach the round of 16, suffered from poor shooting by Lauren Beckman, its usual leading scorer, and top 3-point shooter Herbert. Beckman was 2-for-9. Herbert also was 2-for-9, including 0-for-5 from long range.