March 30, 2001
By CHUCK SCHOFFNER
ST. LOUIS - Notre Dame will finish its season of success in the biggest game of all. All it took was the biggest comeback in the 20 years of the women's Final Four.
Down 16 points in the first half, its point guard in foul trouble and All-America center Ruth Riley neutralized, Notre Dame made a stunning turnaround to beat Big East rival Connecticut 90-75 Friday night to earn a berth in the national championship game.
The Irish got 21 points from St. Louis native Niele Ivey in a balanced offense and denied the defending champions a return to the title game. Instead, it will be an all-Indiana final with Notre Dame meeting Purdue on Sunday night.
"We just decided to come together," Ivey said. "We had 20 more minutes no matter what the score was. It was 0-0 when we came back out there. Our chemistry kept us together, just like it's been helping us all year."
Purdue, which lost to Notre Dame 72-61 on Dec. 9, advanced with an 81-64 victory over Southwest Missouri State. The Boilermakers were the 1999 national champions. Notre Dame is in the title game for the first time.
Alicia Ratay added 20 points for Notre Dame and Riley, limited to two shots
and two points in the first half, finished with 18. Erika Haney added 15 points
and 10 rebounds.
"I think the second half, we were more aggressive," Riley said. "We had confidence in ourselves and knew we needed to attack."
The Irish (33-2) certainly did that, though it was tense for a while.
Notre Dame never led until Ratay hit a 3-pointer with UConn's Diana Taurasi in her face, making it 61-59 with 12:37 left. Connecticut (32-3) led twice after that, the last time at 65-63 on Tamika Williams' reverse layup with 10:30 remaining.
Then the Huskies went cold and Notre Dame kicked it in.
Ratay hit a jumper, Ivey sank two free throws and Ratay - the nation's most accurate 3-point shooter at 54 percent - hit another from behind the arc. That made it 70-65.
Ivey's steal set up two free throws by Jeneka Joyce, Riley scored on a putback and then sank a free throw. When Haney made two free throws, Notre Dame had scored 14 straight points, the lead was 77-65 and the Irish were on their way to the title game.
Connecticut went more than five minutes without scoring, finally ending its drought when Taurasi hit a free throw with 5:24 left. Sue Bird made a 3-pointer 35 seconds later, but it was too little, too late.
"I don't think we could have played better than we did in the first half," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "It all fell apart for us in the second half. You hope it doesn't happen, but it happened."
Notre Dame got a scare when Ivey, the point guard, grabbed her left ankle in pain while scrambling on the floor for a loose ball. But she stayed in the game and directed the Irish down the stretch, though she was on crutches afterward and coach Muffet McGraw said she was not practice Saturday.
After getting three fouls in the first half, Ivey did not pick up another.
"Niele's been through so much we instantly got a little scared," Riley said. "Our heart skipped a beat."
Ivey twice has been sidelined by a torn anterior cruciate ligament. She insisted this injury was not serious.
"I'm doing all right," she told her teammates. "It's just a sprain."
It was the rubber match between the two after each won on the other's court. Connecticut had won the most recent game, 78-76 in the Big East championship. Notre Dame will gladly trade that for this one.
Bird led Connecticut with 18 points, while Kelly Schumacher scored 12 and grabbed 17 rebounds - one short of the record for a national semifinal. The Huskies shot only 33.8 percent and were 6-for-30 from 3-point range.
"As the game was going on and got further into the second half, we lost our composure," Bird said. "We'd miss a shot and there was like - I don't even know what to call it - a panic or urgency that we had. I think because of that we were unable to get a stop or get a score like you are supposed to do it."
Taurasi, a freshman, had become Connecticut's go-to player after injuries sidelined All-Americans Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph. But her shot wasn't there Friday night. She scored only four points on 1-for-15 shooting before fouling out with 1:24 left and was fighting back tears as the final seconds ticked off.
"Diana has played so well in this tournament," Bird said. "It's tough to shoot the way she did tonight, but it's not all on her. We're a team, and so when she's not hitting her shot, somebody else has to step up and hit theirs."
Connecticut led by 12 at halftime and went up 52-37 on Bird's 3-pointer at the start of the second half. But the Huskies made only four baskets in the next 9:20 and Notre Dame put together a 24-7 run that included seven points by Haney to finally take the lead.
Previously, the largest comeback came in the 1997 semifinals when Old Dominion rallied from 15 down to beat Stanford.
"At halftime, we were pretty calm," McGraw said. "We just talked about rebounding. We did a poor job on the boards, so that's what we spent most of the time talking about, how we could rebound better."
Notre Dame had to finish the first with both Riley and Ivey on the bench - not a good combination for a team with little depth. Riley sat the last 6:35 after getting two fouls and Ivey was out the final 2:32.
UConn led 39-31 when Ivey went out, then scored eight straight to go up 47-31. Jeneka Joyce and Ratay each hit a 3-pointer to draw the Irish to 49-37 at halftime and keep them within striking distance.
As it turned out, they were close enough and Notre Dame fans chanted, "One more game, one more game" as they celebrated the victory.