TAMPA — In the biggest game of her career, Sabrina Ionescu struggled.
It wasn’t that the transcendent junior guard from Oregon was bothered by the bright lights or the big stage at the Final Four in Tampa, Florida. She shot 25 percent from the floor, her third-worst mark all season, and missed a season-high 18 shots.
At the root of frustrating evening for Ionescu — the Pac-12 Player of the Year, an All-American and the Nancy Lieberman award winner — was a slender Baylor sophomore with lanky arms, Afro puffs and an unmatched level of feistiness.
DiDi Richards gave Ionescu fits all night. When she wasn’t fighting through a bevy of Oregon screens, Richards stuck to Ionescu like flypaper, always ready to throw a hand up in her grill when a shot was about to be fired off.
“She’s long, she’s athletic, pesky, hands,” Ionescu said. “So, all that peskiness is what helped her get to where she is.”
Richards was tasked with guarding the Oregon star for the majority of the night, helping hold her to 18 points on 24 shots. Ionescu, the NCAA’s record holder for career triple-doubles, was also only able to muster up six assists and four rebounds. It was the first time this postseason that Ionescu was held to less than 20 points without reaching double digits in rebounds or assists.
Baylor went on to win 72-67, punching its first ticket to the championship game since 2012.
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“I wouldn’t say I shut her down,” Richards said. “I knew it was going to be a big game for me. I knew it was going to get a little feisty in there.”
Ionescu didn’t score at all in the first quarter, missing her only two field goal attempts and coughing up possession of the ball twice.
“I could definitely sense her frustration. I get away with a lot, of bumps and hits, because I’m so quick,” Richards said. “She was talking to the refs the whole game.”
In the second quarter, Ionescu was at her best and was able to find some space away from Richards’ smothering defense, dropping 12 points. Near the end of the period, Richards got a little too close and fouled Ionescu as she swished a three-pointer from the top of the key.
For that round of the bout, Ionescu got the best of Richards, and she let her know it, staring her down with a frosty glare. A few years back, that might’ve set Richards off. But she didn’t let Ionescu get in her head.
“Sabrina is real confident in herself. It’s annoying playing against players like that, but it was fun, it was a challenge,” Richards said. “Back in high school, there would’ve been an argument. I would’ve done something stupid. So, I’m happy I matured. When she looked at me — she said she looked at the bench, but she looked at me — and I was kind of like, ‘Girrrl.’ I had to really control myself.”
Because of her accumulation of fouls, Richards split the duties of guarding Ionescu with backcourt mate Juicy Landrum in the second half. Together, they held her to six points for the remainder of the game.
At 6-foot-1 and armed with quick feet, long arms and fiery competitiveness, Richards has become Baylor’s No. 1 perimeter defender. On Sunday night in the championship game, the Cypress, Texas native will likely be tasked with guarding Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale, making sure she doesn’t have another episode of buzzer-beating, late-game heroics.
But Richards has also become a valuable offensive talent in the postseason too.
She scored 15 points in the win over Oregon, and through the NCAA tournament is averaging 13.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. Richards has been stout on defense all season long, but her emergence on offense has opened things up for her teammates. With Richards, Chloe Jackson and Landrum shooting well from the wings, no longer can opponents pack the paint against Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox, perhaps the most talented pair of post players in women’s college basketball.
“I think DiDi has figured out that she's not going to be a liability on the offensive end when people don't guard her, so she cuts to the basket, she finds open areas to do good things,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said. “If it's an offensive board, cutting to the basket when our post players, who are tremendous passers, can find her.”
If Baylor wins its third national championship on Sunday, much of the credit — deservedly so — will go to the strong inside play of Brown and Cox, and the superb coaching of Mulkey. But, like she did against Oregon, Richards could have an enormous impact on the outcome of the game too, whether it be through her annoying gnat-at-a-BBQ-like defense, or through her newfound offensive prowess.
“(Richards) is just resilient,” Jackson said. “She just wasn’t giving up. She didn’t stop working that whole game.”
Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, there’s a chance women’s basketball fans will get to see chapter two of Richards vs. Ionescu next season. Richards is just a sophomore and Ionescu announced Saturday she will return for her senior year, after flirting with the WNBA draft.
Both teams should be stocked with the talent to make NCAA tournament runs next season too.
“(Ionescu) has the ‘it.’ We’re both real angry players who play to get the ball. I’m happy it was a clean game though,” Richards said. “I was real honored to be on the court with her. She’s a great player and I hope I get to play her again. I like the challenge.”
Mitchell Northam is a graduate of Salisbury University. His work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, SB Nation, FanSided, USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times. He grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and is now based in Durham, N.C.