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Riley continues basketball success

Heather VanHoegarden | Thursday, November 18, 2004

Sunday afternoon at the Joyce Center, she took off her headset and was swarmed by 10 people. They just kept coming.

“Ruth, will you sign my shirt.”

“Ruth, will you take a picture with me.”

Ruth Riley returned to Notre Dame as even more of a celebrity than she was to begin with after winning a gold medal in Athens, Greece.

“I get a great reception when I come back,” Riley said. “Not only am I an obvious figure walking across campus, but so many people support and love and still support me, whether I’m at Detroit, or at the Olympics. It’s nice to know that when you come back here, people have appreciation for what you do.”

The 6-foot-5 center was broadcasting with ESPN Radio’s Sean Stires during the Irish basketball games Friday and Sunday when she was mobbed by fans of all shapes and sizes for autographs and pictures. Riley is just enjoying the experience of being on the sidelines, doing the color commentary while Stires does the play-by-play.

“I’m just trying it out,” Riley said of the radio broadcasting. “I’m just excited I got to catch the first two games, and broadcasting is something I’m interested in. So when I am in town, Sean lets me be his sidekick. He does his job and lets me talk a little bit. And I’m calling Notre Dame games, so it makes it a little easier for me.”

Riley, a member of the 2001 Notre Dame national championship team, returned to Notre Dame with yet another award, as she was part of the U.S. women’s basketball team that won the gold medal in Athens. However, she was not originally selected to the team. But when DeLisha Milton-Jones went down with an injury, Riley was asked to join the team. And as a result, she won gold.

The women defeated Australia for the gold medal by a score of 73-63 on Riley’s 25th birthday in August. Riley averaged 3.4 points and 2.4 rebounds in seven games for the United States.

“It was amazing to be there,” Riley said of her trip to Athens. “[In the] Opening Ceremonies, you’re with so many different countries, athletes from all over the world, playing different sports, and you’re all there together, competing trying to get the same goal. Being able to represent your country is such an honor – to be over there and wearing a jersey that says ‘USA.'”

For the girl from small-town Macy, Ind., being an Olympian has been a life-long dream.

“Since I was little [I wanted to play in the Olympics],” Riley said. “The WNBA wasn’t around, so that wasn’t a goal when I was growing up. So when you’re sitting there, a little girl watching the Olympics, that’s what you dream of, that’s the ultimate level of accomplishment. So I’m blessed to be able to do that.”

And when Riley stood on the gold medal stand with her teammates, listening to the national anthem being played, she said it was an amazing feeling.

“It’s hard to put it into words,” she said. “You’re standing up there, seeing your flag being raised, you’re listening to the national anthem and knowing that so many people back home are supporting what you do, and knowing that you put so much hard work into getting to that point – it’s just awesome.”

For Riley, the gold medal is just another accomplishment to add to her laundry list of accolades. Riley was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2001 Final Four, where she scored 46 points and grabbed 20 rebounds to lead the Irish to the championship with wins over Connecticut and Purdue.

From there, Riley went on to the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, where she picked up where she left off. With Notre Dame grad Bill Laimbeer as her coach, she led the Shock to its first-ever WNBA title in 2003, and was named the Most Valuable Player of the Finals. She remains the only athlete in Notre Dame history to be named the MVP of both the NCAA tournament and a professional championship.

In the WNBA, she has been outstanding, much like her tenure at Notre Dame. Riley averaged 9.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in 2003, including her inspirational 27-point performance in last year’s title game.

Riley said that all three of her championships are equally special to her.

“It’s kind of hard to compare the three because they’re so uniquely different,” Riley said. “All are just awesome experiences for me.”

But regardless of what she has accomplished, Riley maintains the humble attitude that she had in 2001 when Notre Dame won the national championship.

“I’m just blessed,” she said of her success. “I’ve put in a lot of hard work, and I’ve had a lot of great coaches along the way, good teammates who’ve helped me and sometimes made me look like a better player then I probably was at that point. But it’s just amazing. And I’m just excited about what I’ve been able to accomplish and hoping to do more in the future.”

And with a NCAA Championship, WNBA Championship and a gold medal under her belt, who knows what Riley will find to win next.