Irish ride Riley to 2001 championship

Updated: March 24, 2006, 11:36 PM ET
By Beth Mowins | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: As the NCAA celebrates its 25th season of women's basketball, ESPN and ESPN.com count down the top 25 moments of NCAA Tournament history. Here, we continue the countdown with memorable NCAA moment No. 8, Notre Dame's 2001 NCAA title.

You had your comeback stories, the rise of a new national power and the return trip for a previous NCAA champ.

Yes, a myriad of storylines were on stage leading into the 2001 national championship at the Savvis Center in St. Louis. And for the first time in NCAA history, two teams from the same state, Notre Dame and Purdue, would clash in the final. And all eyes were on a couple of local kids, including Irish guard Niele Ivey, whose perseverance in coming back from ACL injuries was rewarded with a trip to her hometown of St. Louis for the Final Four.

The Fighting Irish also were attempting to cap off the best season in program history with the school's first championship. During the regular season, Notre Dame already had grabbed its first No. 1 ranking in the Top 25 polls. The Irish also excised their UConn demon, beating the Huskies in the regular season for the first time since joining the Big East. They then beat them again in the national semifinals, making more history every step of the way.

By the time the Irish reached the Savvis Center, perhaps we should have known something special was in the works, especially considering Notre Dame tipped off its NCAA first-round game on St. Patrick's Day in South Bend. The Irish broke out the green jerseys for the special occasion and all 12 players on the roster scored in a rout over Alcorn State.

Everyone on the team scored again in a second-round win over Michigan, led by All-America center Ruth Riley with 24 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists.

In the Sweet 16 in Denver, the Irish achieved another landmark moment. Their win over Utah in the regional semifinals tied the school record for most victories in a season. Then in the Elite Eight against Vanderbilt, Notre Dame extended the mark with its 32nd win of the year. Riley was spectacular with a season-high 32 points en route to capturing the regional's Most Outstanding Player honors.

But in the national semifinals, Notre Dame ran into trouble against Connecticut. The Irish stumbled out of the gate in the first 20 minutes and trailed by 12 points at the break, their biggest halftime deficit of the season. At one point, they fell behind by 16.

But in the second half, the Irish exploded, scoring 53 points to record the comeback win. Notre Dame registered the biggest comeback in Final Four history (which was tied by Michigan State in 2005) with the rally. The defense held UConn to just 23 percent shooting in the second half while Diana Taurasi was limited to 1-for-15 shooting.

Notre Dame advanced to the final, where it would play Purdue, which had just ended the dreams of Jackie Stiles and Southwest Missouri State in their semifinal showdown.

The all-Indiana title game offered one of the most exciting finishes in Final Four history. With the score tied at 66 and just 5.8 seconds remaining, Riley nailed a pair of free throws to give Notre Dame the lead. Purdue got off a final shot at the buzzer, but Katie Douglas' attempt missed the mark, giving the Irish a 68-66 win.

Riley scored 28 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked 7 shots in the championship game. Ivey won the title in her hometown while playing all 40 minutes, despite a sprained ankle. Senior Kelley Siemon was rock solid in her final game in an Irish uniform with 10 points, nine rebounds and six assists.

"It's definitely euphoria," Irish coach Muffett McGraw said after the game. "It's the greatest moment in our basketball history at Notre Dame. I don't know when I've been this excited. What can you say about Ruth Riley? What clutch on the free-throw line, to make both those free throws!"

Riley agreed.

"I can't even describe it. This is the only thing I wanted," she said. "To be able to share this with my teammates is unbelievable. We worked so hard that it was fitting to end the season this way. All those free throws I shot after practice really paid off."

Added Ivey: "I always dreamed of this moment, and then to have it happen in my hometown … I'm totally blessed."

After the celebration, when the team arrived back on campus, the coaching staff headed straight for the videotape. They wanted to watch the championship game and savor every moment of it.

"We just wanted to see what it looked like," McGraw said. "It was all so fast as it was happening that we're not sure we even remember it."

Click here to see when the next memorable moment will air in our countdown.

Beth Mowins

Women's Basketball
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.