© (MONICA HERNDON/Tampa Bay Times//Tampa Bay Times/TNSOregon's Sabrina Ionescu (20) and Baylor's DiDi Richards (2) in the NCAA Women's Final Four semifinal game at the Amalie Arena on Friday, April 5, 2019.
TAMPA - The procession of postgame handshakes had barely begun when Baylor coach Kim Mulkey stopped Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu and placed a hand on her shoulder while whispering in her ear.
Next up was a short word of encouragement from a Baylor assistant. Then a hug from a player. Finally, Ionescu came face to face with Baylor guard DiDi Richards.
Ionescu, named the top player in the nation on Thursday, did not break stride and barely extended a hand.
It may have been her first clean escape from Richards all night.
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This could have been Ionescu's moment. Her chance to show the rest of the world what women's basketball aficionados have been raving about for three years.
She is a rising star in women's basketball, and every opponent knows it. Should she choose to enter the WNBA draft next week, Ionescu could very well be the No. 1 pick. She is putting up all-around numbers that have never been seen in the college game, whether you're talking about men or women.
And in the biggest game of her career, Ionescu was smothered by Richards and her Baylor teammates. The Bears went on to beat the Ducks 72-67 Friday night to advance to the national championship game Sunday.
"I could sense her frustration," Richards said. "I get away with a lot of bumps and hits because I'm so quick. I could definitely sense she was getting a little upset with me, and with the refs. She was talking to the refs the whole game."
This was a version of Ionescu that Oregon fans have rarely seen. After averaging 10 assists and seven rebounds in the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Ionescu was held to six assists and four rebounds. And while she scored a team-high 18 points, they came at a high cost.
Ionescu whiffed on 18 of her 24 shots from the field, the most misses she's had all season.
Upstart Oregon pushed top-seeded Baylor for four quarters, but the end result was the same. Another Bears win. @BaylorWBB #Baylor @OregonWBB #WFinalFour @ncaawbb @MBakerTBTimes @TB_Times https://t.co/Goj0dLqemy
- TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) April 6, 2019"She did what every defender tends to do. It's just easier when you have a 6-5 and a 6-7 post player on the inside being able to protect the rim," Ionescu said of Richards. "She was able to come out and put a little more pressure on you because she knows they have two players protecting her inside."
A screenwriter wouldn't have plotted it this way. The star may prevail, or the star may fall short, but the star rarely leaves the screen with a look of exasperation.
And yet the showdown between Richards and Ionescu was still thrilling theater. Richards completely handcuffed the Oregon junior during the first quarter, leaving Ionescu with more turnovers (2) than assists (1), and more fouls (1) than points (0).
When Ionescu hit a 3-point shot with Richards fouling her at the end of the first half, she landed on her backside and watched her shot fall perfectly threw the net. She then turned slowly and stared at Richards with a look that seemed like a cross between smugness and disdain.
Ionescu later said she was looking back toward her bench but Richards wasn't buying it.
"The way she looked at me, I was thinking 'Girl, what is your problem?'" Richards said. "I had to really control myself because things were definitely getting tense."
Maybe for Ionescu, but Richards seemed to play the entire game with a bemused air. She grinned at officials when she got into foul trouble, and she bantered with teammates at every opportunity.
She has been Baylor's defensive stopper all season, and she played her role perfectly on Friday. She was quick. She was tenacious. She fought through screens and refused to be pushed around. Mostly, she was infuriating.
Turns out, that's what Richards does best. She wants to pester and annoy and make the opponent's star work for every shot, let alone every point.
"She's long, she's athletic, she tends to be handsy," Ionescu said. "So all of that goes into what a great defender she is."
Turns out, the world saw a different star shine on Friday.
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