ST. LOUIS (Ticker) -- After being the focus of Purdue's defense all night, Ruth Riley took center stage.
Riley made two free throws with 5.8 seconds left as Notre Dame captured its first national championship with a thrilling 68-66 victory over Purdue.
With the score tied at 66-66, Notre Dame (34-2) took possession with 35.2 seconds left and Niele Ivey fed Kelley Siemon at the top of the key. Siemon dumped it down to Riley, who was fouled by freshman Shereka Wright.
"We really felt like we defended it well," Purdue coach Kristy Curry said. "But sometimes the ball doesn't bounce your way. But I think what you have to take away from that last possession is that the basketball game isn't won or lost on the last play." Riley calmly made both free throws, giving Purdue one final chance. The Boilermakers pushed the ball upcourt and found two-time Big Ten Conference Player of the Year Katie Douglas, who missed a shot from just inside the arc at the buzzer.
"I wasn't really nervous," Riley said. "I was in the same situation in the UConn game (on March 6) and I didn't pull it off then. But I had a lot of practice at the line after that." Riley capped a dominating evening with 28 points and 13 rebounds and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Ericka Haney scored 13 points for the Fighting Irish, who were outrebounded, 41-38.
"The game plan for us is to go in to Ruth," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "Even though she was double-teamed, we like to throw it in as much as possible." The Fighting Irish trailed by as many as eight points in the second half, but a pair of free throws by freshman Jeneka Joyce knotted it at 55-55 with just under eight minutes left.
What followed was a series of dramatic moments between the two Indiana rivals that was reminiscent of "Hoosiers," Riley's favorite movie.
"It was a storybook season with a storybook ending," McGraw said. "I can't say enough about Niele, Ruth and Kelley. I am just so proud to have the opportunity to coach them." Purdue (31-7) surged ahead on three occasions only to have Notre Dame come right back to tie it. Finally, after a free throw by Wright gave Purdue a 63-62 lead, Ivey made a layup 30 seconds later off a feed from Alicia Ratay to give the Irish a 64-63 advantage.
After a Purdue turnover, Douglas came up with a steal and a driving three-point play to give the Boilermakers their last advantage at 66-64 with 1:23 left. The Irish went right back to Riley, who scored to tie it at 68-68 with 61 seconds remaining, setting the stage for her final heroics.
"What more fitting a way to win the game with all the hype about the state of Indiana?" Riley asked. "Somebody asked me about what my favorite part was in 'Hoosiers,' and I said when Ollie made the free throws. And I just got put in the same situation." Riley also had seven blocks, the second-highest total in championship game history. The Fighting Irish trailed by double digits in both Final Four games and were behind at halftime both times. They had lost the only two games they trailed at intermission this season.
Douglas had 18 points and Wright chipped in 17 for Purdue. Freshman Shalicia Hurns also scored 17 for the Boilermakers, who were trying for their second championship in three years.
"Not a lot of people expected us to be in this position," Douglas said. "There's no point hanging our heads. I'm proud of this team and what we've done." Purdue shot 37 percent (25-of-67) and registered 10 steals, including five by Douglas.
The Boilermakers started strongly and a 3-pointer by Douglas gave them their largest lead at 19-7 with 11:26 left in the first half.
Purdue held a 32-26 halftime advantage, but Notre Dame started the second half with eight straight points and took its first lead at 34-32 on two free throws by Riley with nearly three minutes gone.
Douglas and Kelly Komara each made 3-pointers as Purdue answered with an 8-0 run and reclaimed a 42-37 edge with 14:42 remaining. A basket by Komara made it 49-41 with 12 1/2 minutes to go.
Freshmen Hurns and Wright showed few championship jitters as the duo combined to make 13-of-28 shots and grab 11 rebounds. Douglas spoke about passing the torch to the youngsters, who were grateful for the mentoring by the seniors.
"This is something to build on, especially for the freshmen," Hurns said. "This will be a great experience to help us grow. These are building blocks." Ivey, a St. Louis native, scored eight of her 12 points in the second half and came up with five steals. Siemon had eight of her 10 points in the second half and grabbed nine rebounds.
"I think all five seniors contributed tremendously to this program and I think that's why we were so successful, because of our team chemistry," McGraw said. "I think the bar has been raised and I think the freshmen coming in have some very high expectations." Notre Dame's victory gave the Big East Conference different back-to-back national champions, a first for any league. Connecticut captured last year's crown.