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March Madness legend: Ruth Riley

The Sky star has won everywhere, and it started with a title at Notre Dame

April 07, 2013|By Jack M Silverstein | For RedEye

Throughout her 13-year professional career, Chicago Sky star Ruth Riley has been a WNBA all-star, a two-time WNBA champion, a WNBA finals MVP and a gold medalist at the 2004 Olympics.

But she says the most memorable experience of her career was winning the NCAA tournament as a senior at Notre Dame. Now 33, Riley spoke with RedEye about the 2001 national championship game against Purdue, when she scored 28 points, grabbed 13 boards and blocked seven shots.

Talk about the run-up to the 2001 NCAA championship game.

Leading up to the game was the most press that I've ever dealt with. You're going from one interview to another, from [winning the] Naismith [Award] to different awards that you're winning, practice and then media after—it's just an unbelievable amount of attention. We were used to that to some degree from being successful throughout the season, but I wasn't ready for that amount of the spotlight.

So I do remember trying to think to myself, "How do I maintain my normal routine throughout the chaos of all that?"

And how did you?

I guess I'm the type of player who is a creature of habit. So I'm doing the same routine that I would do every single game: going to shoot around, watching tape, when I would eat, when I would sleep, what I would do to prepare. Making sure that I have that block of time just to do that. And honestly, not trying to think about whatever everyone is saying. [Laughs.] The buzz and everything. Just trying to focus on what I needed to do to help my team versus what people are saying about us.

Obviously it's a huge stage. So you just try to normalize everything. And once the ball is tipped, you're just playing ball to the best of your ability. We were fortunate to have played Purdue before, so we knew them a little bit.

With 5.8 seconds remaining and the game tied at 66, Ruth received a pass down low and was fouled on her shot. She stepped to the line with the title up for grabs.

I always think it's funny when people ask me, "What were you thinking when you go to the free-throw line?" And it's kind of a silly question, because you're thinking about how to shoot a free throw. You're thinking, "What are my mechanics like?" For me, I always do the same thing: dribble three times, spin the ball, aim, shoot. You don't take the time to think about the consequences of the shot. You're just thinking about the act of shooting.

I think [the free throws] hit every part of the rim, but fortunately bounced in, both of them. [Laughs.] And then they didn't call a timeout. They advanced the ball. Their best player gets a good look at the basket, and I just remember seeing the ball go off the rim, and at that moment knowing that we won.

You're not prepared for that moment of celebration. I don't even know how to describe it. You're just overwhelmed with excitement and joy, and just looking for your teammates to celebrate this absolutely amazing moment.

How long did it feel like that last shot was in the air?

Forever. And it looked good too. [Laughs.] So it's just like, "No!" You're just praying, "Please don't go in." Afterward you're celebrating in the locker room. You're laughing, you're hugging, you're crying. Press conferences. Just amazing. You're so happy. You don't even know what you're saying. You're just talking and you're excited. You're overcome with a million emotions.

It's still my favorite thing to watch in sports. There really is nothing like the NCAA tournament and March Madness. Just the opportunity for anybody to win. All the stories: the underdogs, the ones who have fought so hard to get there, the teams that have five seniors and are just trying to finish out their collegiate careers the best way possible.

And just the dynamic of 64 teams going to 1, it's a different playoff system than East vs. West, or a best of- series, like 3 or 5 or 7 or whatever it is. It's one and done. And that's unique. So when I watch the tournament now, [I] know what those athletes are feeling.

You wish every college athlete could experience winning a national championship. It's so special. I think when you realize what a unique opportunity that is to win, it makes you even more grateful for your own experience.

Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor. Say hey @readjack.

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