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Published: Sunday, 2/26/2012

COMMENTARY

Richardson the 'Rocket Rejecter'

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Her teammates and coaches call her Yo. Sometimes it's Yo-Yo.

Yolanda Richardson deserves a better nickname than those.

"I know," the University of Toledo's center said, laughing. "I should have a cool one."

A player who sets her school's career blocked shots record -- 158 and counting -- with more than a full season yet to go should be known as The Eraser or The Backstop or The Rejecter.

The Rocket Rejecter.

"Whatever anybody comes up with is fine with me," Richardson said.

All these swatted shots aren't a big surprise. She averaged about four blocks per game during her junior and senior seasons at Start High School.

The Spartan Swatter.

"Blocking shots just came naturally," she said. "It's all body position and timing. I had a feel for that since the first time I played."

The rest of becoming a strong, 6-foot-2 post player was a learning process, especially at the college level.

Playing on the perimeter, where shooters can use a myriad of moves to create offensive opportunities is a different story. Post players face all kinds of obstacles.

"If you're pretty good, you're going to draw more than one defender," said UT coach Tricia Cullop. "Can you get open, get the ball and make shots against double teams, sometimes triple teams? Can you make shots when smaller players get away with being more physical than you can be? Can you handle all that and still finish?

"That's where Yo has taken such strides. She's playing with so much poise under pressure in the post."

The light came on late last season, first in the MAC tournament, then most definitely during Toledo's march to the WNIT championship.

The sophomore backup to another fine center, Melissa Goodall, Richardson registered 14 points and nine rebounds in the WNIT opener against Delaware, broke loose for 20 points, eight rebounds, and a couple blocks against Auburn, was 7-for-7 from the floor in the semifinals against UNC-Charlotte, and earned a spot on the all-tournament team with averages of 11.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, and a blocked shot per game.

"I think the level of competition she succeeded against in the WNIT helped with her confidence and led to what we've seen this season," Cullop said.

Richardson returned in the best shape of her life, knowing that a starting role and increased minutes on the floor would call for better conditioning and health.

"It all sort of clicked late last season," she said. "I had to fully learn my role and I had to get better at the skills and combo moves it takes to play in the post. So much of it is how you move. I was playing behind a great player in Goody, but I knew this season would be my turn. I didn't want to let my teammates or coaches down."

Richardson has started 25 of 27 UT games in 2011-12 and her averages are in the WNIT range with a field goal success of about 63 percent.

The Rockets' opponents, meanwhile, are shooting 36 percent from the field, which brings us back to all those blocked shots, 57 this season, and what Richardson means to UT on defense.

"I wish there was a stat for how many shots she has altered," Cullop said. "If you take away the point-blank looks, move the other team's shooters further from the basket, they're taking lower percentage shots. Then, factor in all the fast breaks she starts for us with blocks. She forces low-percentage shots from the opponent and starts high-percentage shots for us."

When Cullop arrived at UT after the 2007-08 season, which had been a fifth straight nonwinning campaign for the Rockets, she was surprised to learn it had been more than a decade since a player from the City League had been successfully recruited to Savage Arena.

"It was a priority for us to start signing local talent and Yolanda was one of the first we focused on," Cullop said. "The fact that she's not just playing, but starting and starring will hopefully interest some more local kids."

Richardson said she was sold on Cullop rebuilding the program, but it turned out UT's coach could not have found an easier sell.

"It was a family based decision," Yolanda said. "I'm an only child. It would have been hard for me to go away to school and let go of that tie."

At least three times a week she heads back to the north end to spend time with her parents, Earl and Maxine Richardson, and doesn't leave without enjoying one of mom's home-cooked meals.

She then returns to the court to feast on those shooters who venture into her wheelhouse.

The Rocket Rejecter.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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