Bird's buzzer beater lifts Huskies to Big East title
Updated: Wednesday March 07, 2001 7:39 AM
STORRS, Conn. (AP) -- This one wasn't for the Big East championship. This one was for Shea Ralph.
Sue Bird hit a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer to lift No. 2 Connecticut to an emotional 78-76 victory against No. 1 Notre Dame on Tuesday night and give the Huskies their 10th Big East tournament championship.
Bird raced down court with the inbounds pass with 5.1 seconds left after Ruth Riley made the second of her two free throws after missing the first. Bird drove down the left side of the lane and fired the winner.
The Huskies (28-2) were without Ralph, who likely tore a ligament in her left knee late in the first half. Team doctors confirmed the ligament damage and will schedule an MRI.
"She's given so much to me, I wanted to give something back to her," said Bird as she struggled with her emotions.
Ralph, a senior guard, went down with 5:18 left while scrambling for her missed layup. She clutched her face, rolled on the court crying as her coaches and trainers rushed out.
"She knew right away as soon as we went over there. She knew what it was," said head coach Geno Auriemma. "I knew what it was. She's not going to react like that unless it's what it was."
Ralph returned in the second half wearing an air splint and watched from courtside as her teammates regrouped and played one of the closest games of the season.
"Our players worked so hard to win that game," Auriemma said. "We went with who we had out there and what we had available. Never underestimate the heart of a champion."
The game-winner was sweet redemption for Bird, who lost her dribble out of bounds with 38 seconds and UConn up 76-75. The Irish worked the ball inside to the 6-foot-5 Riley, who was fouled by Kelly Schumacher.
The play after Riley's free throw was designed to go straight to Bird.
"No time outs. No nothing. We were going to win or lose on the last shot of the game she's going to take," Auriemma said. "I didn't want [Notre Dame] to set up a defense to decide who gets our last shot."
It was the eighth consecutive tournament title for the Huskies (28-2), who avenged a Jan. 15 loss to the Irish (28-2). Notre Dame has been to the title game four times since joining the conference six years ago, and has lost each time to UConn.
"I thought for the first 39 minutes and 59 seconds, it was an excellent basketball game," Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. "At the end of the game the crowd was a definite factor."
On paper, the Huskies were the visitors because they were the No. 2 seed in the tournament to the top-seeded Irish. But there was no question who had home court advantage.
Bird finished with a team-high 15 points that included a half-court 3-pointer at the buzzer to close out the first half and give UConn a 52-46 lead at the break.
Riley, the Big East player of the year, had a game-high 23 points and nine rebounds.
Riley's 3-point play with 5:24 left started a 7-3 Notre Dame run and the Irish pulled even at 73-73 with 3:51 left. UConn regained the lead on Bird's 3-pointer with 49.8 seconds remaining. Riley brought the Irish within one at 76-75 with an inside bucket and tied it on Notre Dame's next possession, setting up Bird's heroics.
"I have a lot of confidence in that situation," Bird said. "I just took the ball and went. There was no doubt in my mind that it was going in after it hit the front of the rim."
The officials reviewed the tape to make sure time was on the clock when Bird launched the game-winner. And after a few anxious moments in the sold out 10,000-seat Gampel Pavilion, the basket was counted.
"I think it was hard because we didn't have a time out," Riley said of Bird's shot. "We just wanted to get our matchups. We knew Sue would attack us like a good point guard does."
The Irish, the best 3-point shooting team in the nation at 46 percent, shot 40 percent on 9-of-25 from behind the arc.
UConn's Kelly Schumacher, Asjha Jones and Swin Cash had six rebounds each.
Kelley Siemon finished with 16 points for Notre Dame.
There were seven lead changes, and UConn never led by more than seven points and focused on shutting down Notre Dame's 3-point game. Riley didn't face many double teams and the teams played even in the paint, scoring 42 points apiece.
UConn freshman Diana Taurasi, the tournament MVP, scored 14 points before fouling out.
Ralph's injury is the second major one to hit the team this year. All-American Svetlana Abrosimova was lost for the season with a torn ligament in her left foot. She was injured in the Feb. 1 loss to Tennessee.
In closing moments of the game that would decide the No. 1 team in the nation, UConn's top three players -- Ralph, Abrosimova and Taurasi -- could only watch.
"As long as we have five on the floor, we have a chance," Auriemma said.