Irish take time out from dream season for fans
The line stretched from under the basket, through the tunnel leading to the Irish locker room, and around toward the women's basketball office.
Scores of fans, mostly pre-teen girls , gathered around the women's basketball team, asking for autographs or pictures of their idols.
It was 30 minutes after Notre Dame had beaten Boston College 72-59 at the Joyce Center on Saturday afternoon, their 15th victory in a row. The television cameras were stored away, the bright lights had been turned off, no reporters were asking questions. This was not a made-for-TV piece about how nice and caring the women are to the area residents.
It didn't have to be scripted.
These were real smiles on the faces of the 12 members of the No. 5 Irish, who were still in their gold home uniforms. Unlike their professional male counterparts, they enjoyed the interaction with the young girls. They were willing to take time and talk with these fans, not just sign their memorabilia with an expressionless, can't-wait-to-get-home look on their faces.
This unselfishness off the court transcends to their success between the lines. There are no looks of disgust when they are taken out of a game, no smug demeanor when their teammate misses a shot.
Glance at the season statistics and you'll see four players averaging between 10.8 and 15 points per game. No player averages more than 10 field goal attempts per game. The Irish average more than 20 assists per game. Eight players average more than 10 minutes per game. Five different players have led the team in scoring in a game with eight different players leading in rebounding.
Every night there seems to be a new face in the spotlight. For the past two games it's been Kelley Siemon's turn to shine. One game after scoring a career-high 23 points against Providence, the junior forward contributed 11 points and 14 rebounds on Saturday. Playing the entire second half, Siemon dominated the boards against the Eagles, on both ends of the floor. A starter last year, Siemon has adjusted well to her new role.
"It was hard for me [coming off the bench]," Siemon said. "But now later in the season it's really a role that I've come to like. I can get a feel for the game so when I come in, I can be ready to play."
"She's really done a great job with her attitude in terms of acceptance of her role [coming off the bench]," Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. "With Danielle [Green] in the starting lineup we need a spark off the bench and Kelley has been that spark."
Siemon's acceptance of her role coming off the bench is a microcosm of what makes this team special.
The main role is played by junior Ruth Riley — the team leader in both scoring and rebounding. The 6-foot-5 All-American center, among the nation's best players turned in one of her best performance's of the season against Boston College with 23 points on 7-for-11 shooting and 9-for-10 from the line.
Her dominance was never more apparent than in the first 12:17 of the second half on Saturday. In that span, Riley scored 15 of her team's 21 points, helping expand the lead from three to 12. At one point, Riley had 11 points in a row, including a perfect five for five from the foul line.
And on defense, Riley limited Eagles center Jamie Cournoyer to just 6 for 15 from the field, while also making the Eagle guards think twice before driving through the lane.
Yet even Riley only shoots nine times per game, far below what a star player usually attempts. With her size, repertoire of post moves and 84 percent mark from the foul line, Riley could be easily be a 20-point, 10-rebound performer every night.
But it's Riley's unselfishness, her willingness to be patient on offense and get her teammates involved that has helped this team to a 19-2 record.
"When you look at her statistics, you've got to realize who she's playing with," said one WNBA scout at Saturday's game.
The supporting cast includes freshman Alicia Ratay, whose sweet jumper reminded Irish fans of a past great, former All-American Beth Morgan.
Then there's the point guard and team leader, Niele Ivey. She has the unique talent of being able to dominate a game without scoring. On Saturday, Ivey shot just 1-for-11 from the field, but hauled down nine rebounds, dished out nine assists and had three steals in 38 minutes.
Her backcourt mate Green's speed and quickness helps the Irish in transition. The 5-foot-8 senior scored 19 points on Saturday, with none of her field goals coming from further than eight feet away. When the Irish needed her most, Green delivered with nine points in the final 6:18 of the game.
Helping out in the front court are Julie Henderson, Ericka Haney, Amanda Barksdale and Meghan Leahy. The quartet provides rebounding and defensive help for the Irish, who have six players taller than 6-foot.
"We have such good balance," McGraw said. "A couple of years ago when we went to the Final Four [in 1997] we relied on Beth Morgan and Katrina Gaither every single game. This team's not like that. We have great talent. We have five or six people that can lead the team in scoring."
Like the 1997 team, this year's squad has its sights on the ultimate prize in Philadelphia — the Final Four.
Before they get to the City of Brotherly Love, the Irish still have six Big East games remaining, including the season finale against Connecticut, their Achilles Heel the past few years. Then the show moves to the Big East tournament, then hopefully back home to host a first round NCAA tournament game. And from there, anything can happen, like it always does during March Madness.
It could be a memorable season.
But for a group of girls in Michiana, their memories are already set.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Sports Stories for Monday, February 7, 2000