AP Smiles On Irish

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, left, and the Irish's Ruth Riley were voted tops by AP. AP

Ruth Riley remembers watching Notre Dame in the 1997 Final Four as an eager recruit and wishing she could be there playing.

Thanks in large measure to Riley's contributions, Notre Dame is in another Final Four and this time, she'll get her wish.

Riley received The Associated Press player of the year award in women's basketball Thursday as part of a clean sweep for the Irish. Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw was chosen the coach of the year.

Friday night, the two will lead the Irish against Connecticut in the national semifinals.

McGraw had already signed Riley when she took Notre Dame on its '97 Final Four trip to Cincinnati. It made quite an impression on the 6-foot-5 center watching back in Macy, Ind.

"It was so exciting to watch knowing that was where I was going to go," Riley said. "You just can't help but wish that you were a year older and be a part of that already. But I think it showed a lot of potential. It showed me that was possible for where I was going."

Riley edged Southwest Missouri State's Jackie Stiles for the player of the year award and became the first player from a school other than Connecticut or Tennessee to receive the AP honor, which was started in 1995.

McGraw, in her 14th season at Notre Dame, was an overwhelming choice in the voting by AP member newspapers.

"I just look at my staff and think, I know I've got the best staff in the country," McGraw said. "It's a team award and I think that's the way we look at it. I would not be here if it was not for my staff and my team."

Riley received 30 votes, Stiles 26. Last year's winner, Tennessee's Tamika Catchings, had 19 votes. Catchings injured her knee Jan. 15, and missed the rest of the season.

McGraw received 60 votes for the coaching award. Tennessee's Pat Summitt was next with 12.

The AP award is the latest in a string of honors for Riley, the only unanimous selection on this season's All-America team, winner of the Naismith Award and an academic All-American with a 3.64 grade-point average.

Her averages on the court also are impressive: 18.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and three blocks. One of the surest things in the college game when she gets the ball in the low post, Riley is shooting 63 percent from the field.

"She's one in a million," McGraw said. "I don't think there's ever been a player like her, somebody who has done so much for our program at both ends of the floor. I just think she comes around once in a lifetime. I've really been blessed to coach her."

There probably has not been a more popular player at Notre Dame. Riley is besieged after games by youngsters seeking her autograph. She honors requests and takes time to chat.

Fans show their respect by wearing headbands similar to the one Riley wears in a game.

"She is definitely the hardest worker I've ever been around," teammate Kelley Siemon said. "She's coninually staying after practice, asking what she can do. She's a great role model to those younger people, not just the younger people that come and watch, but the people on our team."

With Riley leading the way, Notre Dame started 23-0 and in mid-January broke Connecticut's 30-game winning streak before a national television audience and a sellout crowd at the Joyce Center. A week later, the Irish became No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time.

McGraw has led Notre Dame to the NCAA tournament eight of the last 10 years. She's 320-117 at Notre Dame with 12 20-win seasons and is 408-158 in 19 seasons overall, including five at Lehigh. This season's team has set a school record for victories.

"It's a pretty easy job coaching them," McGraw said. "This really has been the easiest year I've ever had. We've had no problems with the team. We've had fun all year long. It's kind of funny to be rewarded for having so much fun."

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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff