NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM SENDS THREE PLAYERS TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Notre Dame: Official Pipeline to the WNBA
By Lina Balciunas
Not that the program really needed validation, what with winning the national championship just three weeks earlier and all, but Notre Dame knew it had truly arrived among women's basketball elite by the little placard waiting for its contingent at the 2001 WNBA Draft.
The placard sat on a round table among many others for traditional powerhouses considered professional feeder schools: "Tennessee," "Connecticut," "Georgia." While the Fighting Irish already claimed three alumni in the professional ranks -- Coquese Washington (Comets), Beth Cunningham (Mystics) and Katryna Gaither (Fever) -- they had yet to have a player actually drafted. By the end of the day, there were three. Count Notre Dame an official pipeline to the WNBA.
National all-everything center and Final Four MVP Ruth Riley and point guard Niele Ivey came to the draft armed with a posse that included Riley's mother, Irish head coach Muffet McGraw and assistant coach Carol Owens. More support came from Washington, who spent the day on site juggling many hats. She played for the Irish from 1989-93, worked this past season as an assistant coach at Notre Dame, ran the point for the defending champion Comets the last WNBA season and on draft day, hosted the WNBA.com cybercast while doing some television reporting for ESPN2 and NBA.comTV. It was a whirlwind of an experience for Washington, who couldn't pinpoint one role dominating the others.
"When the girls come up (to be drafted), I'm a coach. When I'm around the table here, I'm doing my host thing. I'm watching the girls as they get called, thinking, 'What kind of a player are they? How are they going to help their team in terms of where they're going to challenge us (in Houston) for another championship?'" Washington said. "So it just changes. I'm like a chameleon, depending on who's around and what's going on. I'm having a ball."
The Irish contingent took their seats and began the waiting game, but not for long. The Miami Sol selected Riley with the fifth pick and when WNBA President Val Ackerman called her name, it was tough to tell who was more excited, Riley or McGraw.
"I jumped up before Ruth did. I jumped out of my seat; I couldn't contain myself. She was just getting out of the chair and I think I kind of shielded her from the cameras," McGraw beamed. "I'm just so proud. I feel a little bit like their moms feel, I guess. I'm just so happy for them. To see all the hard work and everything they put into it come to this. I mean, it's just so exciting."
"I was excited. It's a relief as well. You have all the anxiety building up towards that moment and you just want to find out for sure," Riley said. "Miami is going to be a great place. I'm excited about it."
"That would have been weird. I had no clue where I was going anyway," Ivey said. "Seeing her as a mentor and a coach and then playing against her is going to be really, really difficult. But she's done so much for me that I'm really excited to be on her level now."
Instead, Washington will go head-to-head with Ivey when the Comets face the Fever, after Houston took Amanda Lassiter from Missouri and Indiana selected the Irish senior with their first second-round pick (19th overall). Not only will Ivey join her former Irish teammate, Gaither in Indiana, she'll also be a hometown hero for her fans in nearby South Bend and her family in not-too-far-away St. Louis. Ivey calls it "a perfect situation."
With the teams set, it didn't take long for Riley to start talking smack about facing her former coach.
"'Quese is such a great player. I've played with her and against her these past couple years in practice. I have to remember she's not wearing the same jersey as me," Riley said. "If she brings it in the lane, she knows what's going to happen."
So does the thought of the famous Riley swat make Washington think outside jumpers against the Sol?
"No, Ruth knows I'm taking it inside. I'm going right at her."
So now that Notre Dame has become one of the key colleges where the WNBA looks for talent, what can the league count on from its players? All the Irish representatives said nearly the same thing.
"I think for one they all have great work ethics and I think they all have a lot of fun and a lot of passion for the game," McGraw said. "They're really crowd-favorite kind of kids. Great personalities, people who would be doing very well for community service kinds of things in the cities they're going to be in. I think the teams are going to value the off the court part of these players as much as the on the court."
"We all have a tremendous work ethic; we're all competitive and we're all just nice people," Washington concurred. "I think at times that can be perceived as a knock because people think it means that you're not hungry enough or you're not mean enough, but believe me, we can get down and dirty on the court when we need to."
"I think Coach McGraw picks the type of players that are going to fit in our program. I think we're genuinely good people who are going to get along with everyone, work hard and are devoted to what the program is going for" was Riley's contribution.
And finally from Ivey: "A lot of heart. We have a great work ethic. Coach McGraw instilled in all the players that you need to work hard to be successful on and off the court. We're intense players who love being around the game."
With that sort of endorsement, the WNBA can be nothing but pleased about doubling the amount of Irish alumni on its rosters. As for the incoming rookies, they began this month winning a national championship and will end it as professional athletes, giving April showers a whole new meaning.