Ruth Riley confident Notre Dame's post play will measure up

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Not long after the Christmas Day presents are unwrapped and family members are given goodbye hugs, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team will be headed back to campus.

The team is expected to practice Saturday, beginning preparation for the second third of the season that starts Monday night at home against No. 9-ranked Oregon State.

The biggest question mark on the minds of Irish followers continues to be the concern over post play.

The Irish are ranked third in the nation yet concerns linger over their fate because of the loss of Taya Reimer and the continuing uncertainty about the status of Brianna Turner’s shoulder injury.

There may be no one, other the Coach Muffet McGraw and her staff, who can better analyze the situation than former Irish All-American and WNBA MVP Ruth Riley. She feels there is no need for excessive fretting about the Irish task ahead this season.

Riley at 6-foot-5 helped lead the Irish to the national championship in 2001, and only retired from the WNBA in 2014, feels the Irish are in good hands.

“Coach McGraw is a master of making the most of her talent. She has an amazing ability to make people successful,” said Riley, who currently is in the executive MBA program at ND, and often does color commentary for radio at Irish women’s basketball games.

“It might be difficult for a team to go far without a strong post presence,” Riley said. “But this team can.”

Riley felt the timing for Turner’s brief return against St. Joseph’s (Pa.) Monday night was a good move.

“After that game, there was the Christmas break and a chance for her (Turner) to get more strength," she said. "It was smart how they brought her back.”

If Turner can return to her healthy form, the prospects for the remainder of the Irish schedule look considerably more positive.

Yet Riley has been impressed with the Irish good fortune despite the loss of Turner and Reimer for many games. The Irish are 9-1, with Atlantic Coast Conference play coming up after the Oregon State matchup.

One player who has impressed Riley, who over the years has faced the best of women post players in the nation and the world (Riley won a gold medal with the USA team at the Athens Olympics), is Kathryn Westbeld.

“Westbeld has an incredible skill set,” said Riley.

Westbeld, normally a forward, has been playing a center for the Irish with their other bigs sidelined.

“She can operate on the perimeter, she can put the ball on the floor, she moves her feet well. She has a good future,” Riley added.

Notre Dame has made the most of its four-guard offense without the use of Turner.

“They are a tough matchup with the small lineup,” said Riley. “It has been a real collective effort. Everyone has been stepping up. And I am impressed with the play of the freshmen (Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale)."

Riley knows the value of hard work. Growing up on a farm in Indiana, she realized how hard her mother worked.

“She is the most influential person in my life,” said Riley.

And she sees similarities in the Notre Dame coaching staff.

“They work so well together,” she said of McGraw and assistants Niele Ivey, Carol Owens and Beth Cunningham.

Riley has the opportunity to occasionally participate in some drills with the Irish players and can see first-hand the dedication they have to improving and learning — keys to success for any team at any level.

The fifth overall selection in the WNBA draft in 2001 by the Miami Sol, Riley ruled the post to perfection in her career.

She was part of two WNBA championships with the Detroit Shock and also played for San Antonio, Chicago and Atlanta in her long WNBA career.

She currently does some work for NBA Cares — the league’s global social responsibility program — making public appearances and the like, but is uncertain what the future holds after she completes her master’s program in May.

“I may stay with the NBA or WNBA or some basketball organization, or I may just do some work in a non-profit area”

But if her prognostications are as accurate as her inside game has been, the Irish and McGraw are still headed for plenty of success this season.

Notre Dame's Ruth Riley (right), here with Irish head coach Muffet McGraw, is confident the team's growing pains with its post play will evolve positively over the course of the season. (SBT File Photo)