ST. LOUIS -- Notre Dame pulled off yet another comeback, this one for the biggest prize of all.
The Irish clawed and scratched their way back from deficits time after time and beat Purdue 68-66 on Ruth Riley's two free throws with 5.8 seconds left to win their first national championship.
Notre Dame trailed by 12 points in the first half and was down 66-64 with a little more than a minute to play when Riley, the team's unanimous All-American and national player of the year, came through.
''I can't even describe it,'' Riley said. ''This is the only thing I wanted. To be able to share this with my teammates is unbelievable. We worked so hard that it was fitting to end the season this way.''
It ended the way it did in large measure because of Riley.
First, she scored in the lane to tie it at 66 with 1:01 remaining. Then, she rebounded a miss by Purdue's Shereka Wright, enabling the Irish to set up a late shot.
They got the ball to Riley -- who else? -- and she was fouled by Wright. She made the first throw, returned to the line after a Purdue timeout and calmly made the second.
''It's definitely euphoria,'' Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. ''I don't know when I've been this excited. What can you saw about Ruth Riley? What clutch on the free throw line, to make both of those free throws!''
It still wasn't over because the Boilermakers (31-7) had the last shot. But All-American, Katie Douglas, missed an 18-foot shot at the buzzer, the ball hitting the front of the rim and bouncing off the backboard as the game ended, touching off a wild celebration at center court by Notre Dame.
''We designed a play and got out there and didn't execute it,'' Douglas said. ''I had a good look at the basket and it didn't go down for me.''
Riley, who had only one point in the first 8:23, finished with 28 to lead all scorers and grabbed 13 rebounds. Erika Haney, St. Louis native Niele Ivey and Kelley Siemon also scored in double figures for the Irish (34-2).
That turned out to be enough to offset the inspired play of Purdue freshmen Wright and Shalicia Hurns and another solid performance by Douglas. Purdue won the 1999 national championship and certainly had its chances to win this one, but Notre Dame would not be denied.
So now add the names McGraw, Riley and Ivey to those of Rockne, Leahy and Montana in Notre Dame's rich athletic lore. The title came in McGraw's 14th season as coach and in her second trip to the Final Four. She also got Notre Dame there in 1997.
In the first one, the Irish were just happy to be there. They came determined to win this time after being ranked No. 1 for five weeks this season -- and they got it done.
''I always dreamed of this moment, and then to have it happen in my hometown,'' Ivey said. ''I'm totally blessed.''
Haney finished with 13 points for Notre Dame, Ivey scored 12 and Siemon had 10.
The Irish, the best three-point shooting team in the nation, won despite going 1-for-10 from behind the arc. Alicia Ratay, the nation's best individual performer, was 1-for-4.
Douglas came through with 18 for Purdue and had the Boilermakers' final points, converting a three-point play off a steal and layup to give Purdue a 66-64 lead with 1:22 remaining. Then Riley, named the outstanding player in the Final Four, took over and denied Purdue a second title.
Wright and Hurns, athletic players who have bright futures with the Boilermakers, each scored 17. Douglas also had seven rebounds, five steals and five assists as her brilliant career came to an end. She was a starter on the '99 championship team.
The other starter Purdue had back from that team -- center Camille Cooper -- was dogged by fouls and finished with just six points while playing only 23 minutes.
Notre Dame trailed 19-7 early and was down six at halftime. But the Irish have this comeback thing down pat. They rallied from 16 points down in Friday night's semifinal to beat Connecticut -- the biggest comeback in the 20 years of the women's Final Four.
And they did it again.
Riley had four points as Notre Dame started the second half with an 8-0 run to take its first lead at 34-32. It didn't last long. Purdue came back with a 10-3 run that included 3-pointers by Douglas and Kelly Komara to go up 42-37.
''It hurts so bad right now because the program has been through so much adversity,'' said Purdue coach Kristy Curry, who took the job after Carolyn Peck guided the Boilermakers to their title. ''But our five seniors will walk out of here winners in the game of life. They'll all do good things.'
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