Yolanda Richardson exploded against Auburn, scoring 20 points to lead the Rockets.
With Richardson and the Rockets, it has sort of been a chicken-and-egg ordeal during this run through the WNIT. On one hand, UT has managed to barrel into Saturday's championship game in part because of Richardson and her increased production. On the other hand, without these extra games and practices, Richardson wouldn't have been afforded a canvas to take her game to a new level.
Somewhat oddly, Richardson has lifted her game during the tournament despite facing bigger athletes from bigger basketball programs than the ones she saw each night in the Mid-American Conference.
In five tournament wins, Richardson is averaging 13.2 points and 5.8 rebounds, a fairly dramatic spike from her regular season production of 6.3 ppg and 5.3 rpg.
Richardson and the Rockets (28-8) will host Southern California at 3 p.m. Saturday in the WNIT championship at Savage Arena. Tickets are already sold out.
"I think the thing that's exciting about her development is her poise," UT coach Tricia Cullop said Wednesday after Richardson posted 14 points and four rebounds in an 83-60 thumping of Charlotte. "Early in the year she was rushing shots. Now she's taking her time and taking what the defense gives her and taking a lot of balanced shots. That's composure of an experienced post player that she's getting because of this tournament. It's a great experience for her to get better."
A star on Start's state runner up team in 2009, Richardson became UT's first City League recruit since 1993. She appeared in 32 games as a freshman, averaging 4.0 ppg and a team-best 1.6 blocks. Richardson got in better shape over the offseason and increased her minutes per game from 11.4 to 17.8. During the tournament, she's been a self-described "beast."
"Every game I just knew I had to come out here and play hard, just play my game, and be a beast down low, basically," Richardson said Wednesday after shooting 7-for-7 from the floor.
A five-point, four-rebound effort against Alabama has been Richardson's only unimpressive performance of the tournament. The others have all been strong, if not excellent. She's scored in double figures four times -- highlighted by a 20-point game against Auburn -- and has more than held her own defensively against a collection of tall and skilled post players. Against Charlotte, Richardson, starting for the third time this season, scored six of her team's first eight points after halftime and later added back-to-back buckets to swell UT's lead to 65-34.
"I thought their bigs were great tonight," Charlotte coach Karen Aston said.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference between a good team from a mid-major conference like the MAC and one from, say, the Pac 10, or the Southeastern Conference, is in the size of the post players. At 6-2, Richardson has given up a couple of inches throughout the tournament. In Sunday's semifinal overtime win over Syracuse, she went at the Orange's 6-4 Kayla Alexander to score a pivotal three-point play at the end of regulation, and again in overtime to record UT's final field goal.
Saturday, Richardson will battle USC's 6-5 Kari LaPlante, who is averaging 5.9 ppg and 5.5 rpg, as well as a group of others who stand 6 feet or taller.
"I think if you have the confidence in yourself, it doesn't really matter what size [opponent] you play," Richardson said.
Start coach Bob Brown said Richardson's excellent strength has always allowed her to defend just about anyone, regardless of size or height. Brown complimented Cullop for helping the left-handed Richardson develop offensive moves using both hands and says Richardson being able to finish shots has been the most noticeable difference in her game during the tournament.
"She's always been one of the most powerful girls on the floor," Brown said. "Her strength has always been her biggest asset, and now she's gotten even stronger."
Brown attended UT's past three games and phoned Richardson yesterday to praise her for her recent play -- and to rib her a bit.
"The first thing I said is, 'You know, if you would have finished right handed like [Wednesday] we might have won a state title,' " Brown said.
In two days, Richardson might just be the biggest reason UT wins a national title.
SELLOUT: At 4:30 p.m. Thursday, UT announced it had sold all tickets for the game, except for 700 remaining student tickets. Students will get in free but must pick up their ticket ahead of time at Savage Arena.
Reportedly, some fans were camped outside of Savage Arena at 5:30 a.m. Thursday in preparation for the ticket office to open at 10 a.m.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6160.