AUBURN HILLS, Mich., Sept. 16 -- Ruth Riley stepped out to 15 feet and won the Detroit Shock a championship.
At 6-5, Riley had lived in the low post prior to the 2003 season, but with Cheryl Ford and Swin Cash playing in the block, the team needed Riley -- despite her initial objections -- to add a mid-range jumper to repertoire.
Ruth Riley led the Shock with 27 points in Game 3.|
As Shock coach Bill Laimbeer
noted after Detroit's Game 3 victory, "When she got here she said, 'Bill I'm a back-to-the-basket type player.' I said, 'Yes I know that, but I need you to be more of a perimeter player. I need you to be 15 feet from the basket and make that shot.'
"She questioned me on it a few times, but I continued to tell her, 'We need you on the perimeter; we've got Cash and Ford in the post. It's imperative that you shoot this shot. If you don't shoot it, our team is dead."
On Tuesday night, she shot it, finishing with a team-high 27 points on 11-of-19 from the field and winning the WNBA Finals Most Valuable Player award.
With Sparks center Lisa Leslie providing help defense down low on Cash and Ford, Riley was left open time and again for baseline floaters and short jumpers in the lane. During a four-minute stretch in the first half, Riley scored eight straight points for the Shock, with only one of those baskets coming on a layup.
"Swin's a great post-up player and so is Cheryl, and teams have to respect that. I think that's why Lisa helped in a lot, and coach has been telling me all year to shoot that, and I was able to knock it down today."
"Today," said Laimbeer, "she took it upon herself and she made a lot of them."
But it was a sequence late in the second half that may have saved the game for Detroit. After a Mwadi Mabika layup and Leslie free throw put the Shock down by three, Riley responded with another jumper to bring Detroit within one. Then, on a critical Sparks possession with just over a minute to play, she hounded Leslie into a missed shot and secured the loose ball.
It was the brand of defensive tenacity that was typical of Riley's night and as important to Detroit's win as her big offensive numbers. She posted six rebounds and three blocked shots in the box score, and she thoroughly neutralized Leslie, the MVP of the previous two WNBA Finals, on the court.
Using her size and positioning, Riley continually pushed Leslie out of her range, and when Leslie did manage to get inside, Riley was right there to deny an open look. The results were tangible: Leslie averaged 20.5 points on 16-of-31 (.519) shooting through Games 1 and 2, but scored just 13 points on 5-of-19 (.263) from the field in Game 3.
"I would have to say this has been the most physical basketball I've ever played in my life, these last two games," said Leslie. "I have all the bruises on my face to show it. I just have to go out there and play to the best of my ability under the circumstances."
"[Riley] has played a lot of great games, defensively especially," said Laimbeer. "Ruth is very smart. She understands where she makes mistakes and they don't happen again too often."
And after the way she excelled at both ends of the floor in Game 3, Riley was able to appreciate the role she played in bringing a championship to Detroit.
"We're playing one of the best teams in the world, and I was able to come out and play the best basketball -- at this point -- that I'm able to play. It's amazing. This is something that you dream of and something you work so hard for, even when you're a little kid and you're out there shooting hoops."
Perhaps from about 15 feet.