Women’s cham­pi­onship: Post play­ers get the ac­co­lades, but Bay­lor’s women lean on dogged de­fender DiDi Richards,

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY KELLY WHITE­SIDE New York Times

Kim Mulkey’s in­ten­sity can be as brash as the color of her side­line suits. At times, the Bay­lor coach chal­lenges her play­ers with a fe­roc­ity that just might set one of her blaze­o­r­ange jack­ets on fire.

“I’m just re­ally chal­leng­ing them and get­ting on them,” Mulkey said. “In the mid­dle of it, DiDi will go, ‘You tell ’em, Mulkey.’ You know, she’s got that lit­tle voice. She just cracks ev­ery­body up.”

DiDi Richards, the team’s court jester, is also its most dogged de­fender. In the NCAA women’s bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment she has added another el­e­ment to her game: clutch scorer.

With all the fo­cus on Bay­lor’s post play­ers – the 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown and 6-4 Lau­ren Cox – the na­tional cham­pi­onship game against Notre Dame on Sun­day just might be de­cided by the spindly arms of Richards, a 6-1 sopho­more.

“This is what I live for,” Richards said. “I am on this team to be the de­fen­sive stop­per, and I’m happy to com­pete against some of the best play­ers in the coun­try.”

In the na­tional semi­fi­nal game against Ore­gon on Fri­day, Richards re­peat­edly has­sled the Ducks’ sharp­shooter, Sab­rina Ionescu.

When Richards fouled Ionescu on a 3-point at­tempt, Ionescu turned to­ward Richards with a long, icy stare. “The way she looked at me, I was think­ing: Gir­rrl,” Richards said.

Richards proudly notes that she has been called both a gnat and a fly in the post­sea­son. Against Notre Dame, she will need to be an even big­ger pest – a wasp? – be­cause she will be guard­ing Arike Ogun­bowale, whose fourthquar­ter buck­ets were a key to the Ir­ish’s win against Con­necti­cut on Fri­day.

“The thing about great play­ers like Arike and Sab­rina is, you can’t pre­pare for them; they play off of you,” Richards said. “The dif­fer­ence is that Arike wants the last shot, she wants the ball in her hand when the shot clock is wind­ing down.”

In last year’s Fi­nal Four, Ogun­bowale hit last-sec­ond shots to give her team vic­to­ries in both the semi­fi­nal and cham­pi­onship game.

Notre Dame is aim­ing for its sec­ond straight na­tional ti­tle, while Bay­lor is shoot­ing for its first since 2012. While the Bay­lor-Ore­gon game was a study in con­trasts – the bruis­ing, de­fen­sive-minded bigs of Bay­lor ver­sus the pick-and-roll, 3-point launch­ing of Ore­gon – the cham­pi­onship game is ex­pected to be more of a look­ing glass.

“This is the first time we’ve played a team that has two out­stand­ing post play­ers,” said Muf­fet McGraw, Notre Dame’s coach. “We’ve gen­er­ally thought we had an ab­nor­mal ad­van­tage in the post. That would be our game plan, to go in­side. We do not feel that way. They have ter­rific play­ers in­side with Lau­ren Cox and Kalani.”

Bay­lor runs its of­fense through the post, but Richards has been tak­ing on a more offensive role to ease the dou­ble and triple teams down low.

Even so, she earns her play­ing time by be­ing pesky out of ne­ces­sity. Tired of sit­ting on the bench her fresh­man year, Richards re­al­ized that if she fo­cused on de­fense, she would see more play­ing time.

“Now, a lot of peo­ple want to talk about her be­ing an offensive li­a­bil­ity,” Mulkey said be­fore the Fi­nal Four. “If you saw the last three or four games, I don’t think you’d say that any­more.” She scored 15 points against Ore­gon.

BRAD HORRIGAN TNS

Bay­lor’s DiDi Richards, left, tries to poke the ball away from Ore­gon’s Sab­rina Ionescu in an NCAA Tour­na­ment na­tional semi­fi­nal Fri­day at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.

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