Referees determine game by calling fouls on Riley
Her eyes bulged, shoulders shrugged, mouth widened and a look of disbelief gleamed from her face.
Ruth Riley was posting up on the right elbow of the foul line, getting in position during the stretch run of Satur-day's Mideast regional semifinal game against Texas Tech. The ball had just been inbounded, some 70 feet from where she was standing.
Then the whistle blew. The officials decided the Irish fate, calling Riley for her 5th foul with the Lady Raiders ahead 61-58 and 1:42 remaining on the clock at the Pyramid.
"I was just posting up and I looked down and she [defender Plenette Pierson] was on the ground," Riley said. "I guess maybe I was too strong."
Pierson had her own version of the now infamous flop.
"She had pushed me down once before," Pierson said. "I wasn't going to take it this time. They called the foul and it went my way."
Just like that, Riley's (and the Irish's) season ended prematurely.
No much anticipated game against Tennessee. No Final Four in head coach Muffet McGraw's hometown of Philadelphia.
Sure, there was time left, but that final 1:42 was a mere formality. Texas Tech went on to defeat Notre Dame 69-65, denying the Irish their first Elite Eight appearance since 1997.
For all the talk about Niele Ivey's leadership, Alicia Ratay's shooting abilities and the Irish's balanced scoring attack, it is Riley, their first team All-American center, who is the team's catalyst.
"We're two different teams with and without Ruth," McGraw said.
Never was it more apparent than in their final game of this memorable season.
Without Riley on the floor all assets of the Irish's game deteriorate.
When point guard Ivey brings the ball up the floor, she can always count on her center. Dump it into Riley and you'll get one of three things. She'll either be in good position to score from the block. Or she'll draw contact and get to the foul line where she shoots better than 80 percent. Or when double and triple-teamed, she can feed an open Ivey or Ratay on the perimeter for open jump shots.
And on defense, the Irish suffer even more when Riley is on the bench. The two-time Big East defensive Player of the Year, who ranked fourth in the nation in blocks (2.7 per game), is an unparalleled one-on-one defender.
But it's her mere presence that may cause even more concern for the opponent.
With Riley manning the middle, Notre Dame's perimeter defenders have more flexibilty. They can challenge the shooter and play a little more aggressively without worrying about getting beat. If the offensive player gets a step on them, Ivey, Danielle Green, Ratay and company know Riley is behind them, eager to help her teammates. Even if she doesn't block an opponent's shot, her presence makes them think twice before driving into the lane.
On Saturday, Riley scored 19 points (on 8 of 12 shooting, 3 of 4 from the line), grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots in 27 minutes.
In the 13 minutes she was on the bench, the Irish were outscored 28-20.
"I didn't think there was any way we could win the game with her on the floor," Sharp said.
So the Raiders attacked Riley, switched defenses, implementing a full-court press as well as running some half-court sets.
The plan didn't work at the beginning of the game. Neither did anything else Texas Tech tried.
Notre Dame raced out to a 17-0 in the first six minutes of the game. Riley scored nine in a row in that span and the Irish looked like they were on their way to face Tennessee in a nationally televised ESPN game on Monday.
The Raiders had different ideas. They scored the next 17 points, holding the Irish scoreless for nearly 10 minutes.
"We hit the biggest drought we ever hit," McGraw said
From that point on, the biggest lead of the game was an eight point Notre Dame margin, 40-32 with 14:56 left.
Every foul call on Riley was a cause for celebration on the Tech sidelines and for the small contingent of fans located opposite the bench, behind the press table. And for the Raiders' band, which tried to fit into the atmosphere of Memphis by sporting fake sideburns and playing a few Elvis tunes.
Riley's first foul came at 11:17 of the first half. She was immediately replaced by Henderson. Riley went back in the game a few minutes later but was whistled for her second foul with 6:44 remaining. She sat the rest of the half as the Irish clung to a 28-23 lead at halftime.
With the Irish ahead 42-38, the refs blew their whistles again on Riley, this time for pushing from behind. When she returned, with 9:51 to play, the game was tied at 46 and the once certain victory was in doubt.
Ericka Haney drove the lane for two, but was answered on the other end by an Aleah Johnson layin. Texas Tech took their first lead of the game at 50-48 on another Johnson layup. Riley scored 13 seconds later from a couple feet away to tie the game.
But while defending on the other end of the floor, Riley was called for her fourth foul, after apparently making contact on the right baseline with a driving Katrisa O'Neal.
"I don't want to comment on the officiating," Riley said of her fourth foul. "But when you're 6'5", it makes it more obvious."
Riley returned at the 6:03 mark. She continued to play aggressively on both ends of the floor, blocking one shot and scoring on the right block on a pass from Ivey to cut the Texas Tech lead to 55-52.
But it was also apparent that Riley was down to her last foul, as she let Pierson spin to the baseline for a scoop-in layup with 1:50 left in the game, giving the Lady Raiders a 61-58 lead.Riley rushed back on offense, took her place near the foul line and the rest was history.
"The difference in the game was when Riley was on the floor and when she was not on the floor," McGraw said. "We were two different teams."
After her departure some highly intelligent Tech fans for no apparent reason started yelling "Rudy."
Too bad reality wasn't as kind to the Irish as the movie.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Sports Stories for Monday, March 27, 2000