It was her last chance to win a City League basketball championship and, after a dismal first half, Start senior Yolanda Richardson knew precisely what she had to do to make it happen.
The 6-foot-1, University of Toledo-bound post player simply needed to impose her will on the Waite Indians.
Richardson's "will" turned out to be 22 second-half points, including 14 in the pivotal third quarter. That's when the Spartans (16-3) awoke from a three-point halftime deficit, outscored Waite 21-11, and ultimately emerged with a 58-51 title-game victory before a crowd of more than 2,000 at Central Catholic's Sullivan Center.
"Yolanda had two points at halftime," Start coach Bob Brown said, "and we said to her, 'We're going to keep feeding you the ball and you gotta score. The City championship goes through you. If you step up, we're going to win.' I thought she did."
For the game, the sturdy left-hander, who was 1-for-5 from the field before the break, totaled game highs of 24 points and 17 rebounds.
"I knew I could've played better than what I was, and that I could've helped my team more," Richardson said. "I just thought, 'This is the City championship,' so I knew I had to go out there and put it on.
"It was adrenaline, it was my team, and it was just the thought of being here. I knew I had to do what I do best, which is post up."
The other half of Start's formidable 1-2 punch was standout 5-6 sophomore point guard Maleeka Kynard, who needed no halftime wake-up call.
Kynard kept the Spartans within 22-19 with 10 first-half points, then added 13 afterward to help deliver her school its first girls hoops crown. Her consistent penetration led to a 13-of-18 free throw effort in the game.
Waite (14-6), which was playing in its fifth straight CL girls playoff final, was led by 6-3 junior Natasha Howard's 18 points and 10 rebounds. What the Indians lacked in overall size against Start, they made up for with a pressure defense that forced Start into 30 turnovers. Waite's primary problem was they had 23 giveaways themselves, despite the fact that the Spartans picked up in a half-court defense.
Thanks to the momentum supplied by Richardson's second-half uprising, the Indians fell behind 51-35 on a Kynard steal-and-layup with 5:03 remaining in the game.
But Waite was not done. With Start pitching in with a few ill-advised shots, the Indians used a 14-2 surge to get within 53-49 on two Courtney Jackson free throws with 54 seconds still remaining.
"It was kind of nerve-racking because coach Brown told us to pull it out and people kept shooting," Kynard said. "But, at the end, I knew we were going to win because we were disciplined to finally do what he said to do.
"We kept playing hard no matter what. We didn't let that get us down. We kept our heads and we did what we had to do to win."
Start finally stemmed the tide, as Kynard hit four of six free throws and Richardson one of two down the stretch to ice the win.
"That's the player of the year," Waite coach Manny May said of Richardson. "She did what she's supposed to do as a senior that's going to a D-I school. She did a great job, and hat's off to Bob Brown and their coaching staff in getting her prepared to play in the low post.
"We didn't have the low-post presence to play against theirs. Yolanda Richardson had an awesome game, and Kynard had an awesome game."
Waite had won three straight CL titles (2005-07) then fallen to Central Catholic in last year's championship game. The Indians, who also lost at Start 49-48 in league play back on Dec. 3, got 10 points from junior guard Miriah Haynes and seven from Jackson.
"Actually I was really panicky because I just didn't know how things were going to go," Richardson said of Waite's late rally. "But I knew that, if we just kept pushing hard and keep telling ourselves we could do it, that we could do it.
"I was relieved. As soon as I got off the court I just starting crying. It's a great feeling."
Start was 18-of-47 (34 percent) from the field, 22-of-38 (58 percent) from the line, and outrebounded Waite 44-39. The Indians were 16-of-55 (29 percent) from the field and 19-of-30 (63 percent) from the line. Neither team hit a 3-pointer.
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