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Ruth Riley wins MVP with both Irish and Shock

Heather VanHoegarden | Thursday, September 25, 2003

Ruth Riley is in a league of her own at Notre Dame.

With her WNBA Finals MVP award, she became the first former Notre Dame student-athlete to be named a Finals MVP at both the college and professional levels. She won the 2001 NCAA Finals MVP when the Irish won the national championship. Not even former Irish quarterback and three-time Super Bowl MVP Joe Montana won both. He was not named MVP in the 1977 Irish national championship victory in the Cotton Bowl.

Riley won the WNBA finals MVP award after scoring a career-high 27 points in the Detroit Shock’s 83-78 over the Los Angeles Sparks. She stepped up in the big game, hitting 15-foot jump shots consistently and playing exceptional defense on Sparks star Lisa Leslie.

“It was a shock,” Riley said. “I’m on a team with three all-stars, and what makes us so good is that we are so balanced. They could have given the award to anybody.”

However, it was Riley who won the MVP, becoming the first woman to be named Finals MVP in both college and the WNBA. Hailing from the small town of Macy, Ind., Riley has made it big both in college and now in her third year in the WNBA.

Riley was coached by the former Detroit Piston and Irish forward Bill Laimbeer. Laimbeer won two NBA Championships with the Pistons and took Notre Dame to the Final Four and Elite Eight in 1978 and 1979, respectively.

“Bill’s great,” Riley said. “I get to throw him being a Domer in there to all my teammates, especially those from Connecticut and other rival schools.”

Laimbeer can also be credited for his determination in bringing a WNBA franchise to the city of Detroit. However, his efforts didn’t end there, as he led the Shock to a title, after finishing with the worst record in the league last year. He revamped the lineup, and got the players that he wanted to win with – and win, he did.

“I love playing for Coach Laimbeer and you couldn’t ask for a better season than the way we ended up.”

Riley led a team with an average age of just under 25 years old, with the oldest player being 29. Riley attributed their success to new players that created a fresh look for the Shock.

“It’s an amazing feeling to be on the team that’s considered the best in the world,” Riley said. “We had a lot of young players that were thrown together this year, and it’s truly a great accomplishment for us.”

Riley once again stepped up when it counted, as her performance mirrored that of the 2001 NCAA Championship game, when she scored 28 points, missing only four shots, and pulled down 13 rebounds. In that game, she was head and shoulders above Purdue.

However, she can’t decide which championship trophy means more to her.

“They’re the same, but different,” Riley said. “At Notre Dame, you work with the same group of girls for four years, and it was such an amazing way to end your collegiate career. But, on the professional level, this was a new team and so it’s an amazing accomplishment to be the best team in the world.”

So, what does Ruth Riley do now?

“I’m running around – everywhere,” she said.

For now, she is in South Bend. Yesterday, she spoke to current Notre Dame student-athletes at the Academic Honors Banquet.

“I love coming back to campus,” Riley said. “It’s like my second home.”

She maintains her Notre Dame ties with head coach Muffet McGraw. McGraw called Riley just before she stepped up on the podium to accept the MVP. Riley was sure to e-mail her former coach later that evening.

“[Coach McGraw] is great,” Riley said. She’s a great resource basketball-wise, and I think that our relationship grew even more after I graduated.”

Next stop for Riley is Russia, where she will play for the WNBA Select team to take on different European countries in the Women’s Basketball World Cup from October 14-19.

After that, who knows, as the tryouts for the USA women’s national team will be in the winter.

For Riley, it is just another opportunity to excel in the game at with she has worked so hard.

“I’m truly blessed,” Riley said. “The success I’ve had here at Notre Dame and then to go on and do it at the professional level is a great accomplishment.”