Tears and triumph in wake of UConn-N.D. battle
By Trisha Blackmar, Sports Illustrated for Women
ST. LOUIS -- As the final seconds ticked away in UConn's loss to Notre Dame, a visibly upset Shea Ralph was doubled over on the bench, her long blonde ponytail hiding the tears. When the final buzzer sounded the Huskies sprinted off the court and into their locker room while Notre Dame players joined in a circle and performed a celebratory Irish jig.
The Connecticut locker room was a Niagara Falls of tears. When the doors were opened for the media to enter we found almost the entire team huddled near the bathroom stalls trying in vain to dry their eyes and control their emotions.
Many players sat pressed against the wall, perhaps hoping to blend into the woodwork so as to avoid talking about their spectacular collapse in this night's game.
It was a decidedly different story in the opponent's locker room. Coach Muffet McGraw's 11-year-old son Murphy was graciously giving interviews as if he was the star of the team. He was hard to miss because he had his face painted half blue and half gold and he was dressed in Notre Dame gear from head to toe.
A reporter asked who his favorite player was. He said, "They're all nice and funny but maybe I like Niele [Ivey] the most because she just seems like she's very good."
A tired but elated Ruth Riley sat on the table in the middle of the room. Anyone who questions her toughness should take a look at the bruises and floorburns that cover her body and especially the myriad scratch marks on her hands and forearms. Her teammates joke that she would make a good "before" model for a hand advertisement.
A quartet of nuns remained in the arena long after the players were gone to do media interviews and most fans had left the building. They held their Niele Ivey #33 signs high and celebrated along with the remaining Notre Dame supporters.
Yet even in their elation one stopped to think of others who were less fortunate, namely the UConn fans. "Do they sell sympathy cards for basketball?" the player asked no one in particular.
End of an era
As the game ended and the players lined up to shake hands, almost every Purdue player grabbed the red-eyed Jackie Stiles and hugged her. Stiles finished with 22 points in the game and 3,393 points for her career.
It goes without saying that the Lady Bears wanted to savor every memory from this Final Four weekend. Maybe that's why the players took everything that wasn't nailed down from their locker room, including a huge NCAA Final Four logo placard they snuck past security.
In the Purdue locker room after the game the mood was obviously upbeat, at least until the picture on the television that was showing the start of the UConn vs. Notre Dame game mysteriously went out.
Mary Jo Noon, a 6-5 sophomore center, was standing the closest to the set and she was the recipient of much invective until Katie Douglas told everyone to chill out and the picture came back on as mysteriously as it went out.
Show of support
Southwest Missouri State fans showed up in their usual maroon platoon and almost every handmade sign seemed to be supporting super scorer Stiles. However, I did notice a few Brazilian flags waived in honor of SMS juniors Erica Vicente and Erika Rante who both hail from Sao Paulo Brazil.
Conversation I wish I hadn't overheard
In the bathroom at halftime of the Purdue vs. SMS game, two Purdue cheerleaders were discussing why they thought Boilermakers would win.
"I'm wearing the same underwear I wore when we beat Xavier," said the first.
"Oh that's good!" said the other.
The Notre Dame team seems to have a tradition of painting their fingernails green for the postseason.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, but during the game I couldn't help thinking how badly the green on McGraw's fingers clashed with her stylish cranberry- hued suit.
Biding her time
At halftime of the second game I spotted Amy Backus, who was my basketball coach at Middlebury and is now coaching at Yale. I asked my former mentor for a critique of the game.
"I can't believe Ruth isn't on the floor. She only has two fouls!" said Backus. "That's being a little too conservative if you ask me."
McGraw must have heard her as Riley played all 20 minutes of the second half and sparked Notre Dame's comeback.