Women's NCAA championship: Backcourt battle the key in Baylor-Notre Dame

The focus is on the frontcourt, but don't overlook each team's trio of guards and how Baylor's DiDi Richards, pictured, defends Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

TAMPA, Fla. -- Inside the Baylor locker room before its final practice Saturday afternoon, the dry-erase board featured an unmistakable message.

"Word of the day: Tuff."

Make no mistake: There is only one way for Baylor to beat defending champion Notre Dame in Sunday's national title game, and that is with the trademark toughness it has displayed throughout the course of the season. Toughness in mentality. Toughness on defense. Toughness inside.

Though the focus very well will be on that inside matchup, there is one more area where that toughness could make itself even more evident: among the trio of guards each team starts. Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale presents the epitome of tough on the offensive end; Baylor's DiDi Richards personifies it defensively.

"I'm curious to see the competitive matchup," Notre Dame guard Marina Mabrey said.

How that matchup plays out will have a lasting impact on everyone else around them Sunday night.

Start with Ogunbowale, known for her incredible ability to make clutch shots with the game on the line. Note her buzzer-beaters in the Women's Final Four and championship game a season ago. Note how she takes over fourth quarters with relative ease.

When it came time to make the shots to beat UConn in the national semifinals again, of course it was Ogunbowale. Afterward, Geno Auriemma quipped, "I don't think it was any mystery who was going to be taking the majority of their shots in the fourth quarter."

Said Ogunbowale: "It's just being in attack mode, knowing that whoever's in front of you, having that mentality that they can't guard you and you're going to score regardless of who's in front of you or what they try to do.

"That's how I play. I've always had a lot of confidence in myself. ... In my mind, I don't think anybody in the country can guard me, and that's how I approach every game, whether they're great defenders or not. It doesn't matter who's in front of me. I'm going to do what I think I can do."

Enter Richards, who has developed into Baylor's top defensive player. After sitting the bench for most of last season because she was a liability on the defensive end, Richards realized she had to get better in a hurry or keep riding the pine.

She worked last offseason to build her lateral speed and focused on bending her knees more to help her improve defensively. Her size is deceptive, too. There are bigger guards, but her wingspan is long, giving her the ability to not only face-guard her primary opponents, but use her arms to alter ball movement or create steals.

"She's a gnat on the ball that doesn't go away," Baylor guard Juicy Landrum said. "You give her just one assignment, and she's going to stick to that assignment."

Richards did that against Oregon in the Final Four against Sabrina Ionescu, and so did Landrum. The two combined to hold Ionescu to 18 points on 6-of-24 shooting, a major confidence booster headed into the matchup with the Irish.

"The thing about great players like Arike and Sabrina is you can't really prepare for them; they play off you," Richards said. "I just have to play normal defensive principles, which is keeping them in front of me. The difference between Arike and most is Arike wants the last shot, or Arike wants the ball in her hand whenever the shot clock's winding down."

"In my mind, I don't think anybody in the country can guard me, and that's how I approach every game, whether they're great defenders or not." Arike Ogunbowale

But the Notre Dame guards are more than just Ogunbowale. Jackie Young, who scored more points than anyone, boy or girl, in Indiana high school history is playing with a renewed confidence that has allowed her to take her game to an even higher level. She's now considering whether to leave school early for the WNBA draft.

Mabrey is the team's best 3-point shooter. Each guard is averaging more than 12 points a game, and on paper -- at least from an offensive perspective -- Notre Dame seemingly has an edge. Part of that is not only the versatility the three bring to the Irish offense, or the scoring proclivity. It's the chemistry they have developed the longer they have played together.

"We know when it's time to give either one of us the ball in what position," Mabrey said. "We all have really, really great confidence in each other. I just know Arike's shot's going in. I just know Jackie's drive is going in, and I feel like they're looking for me on the 3-point line or off ball screens. Either way, all of us are super versatile, so being able to get a score and stop or get the ball where it needs to be, we all trust each other a lot."

As Notre Dame has guards best known for scoring, Baylor has guards best known for defense. But even then, the Baylor guards are often overshadowed because of what the Lady Bears do inside with Lauren Cox and Kalani Brown.

That should no longer be the case. Not with the way Chloe Jackson took charge with the decisive shot to put Baylor ahead of Oregon for good. Not with how Richards has opened up her offensive game in the tournament, posting three consecutive games in double figures for the first time all season.

"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 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."

Unlike Oregon, which forced Baylor to spread out its defense more, Notre Dame allows the Lady Bears a return to the basics on the defensive end.

"This game, they're more one-on-one players, they don't run too many plays, and if it is, it's just the wing screen and go and attack the middle, and our posts are in there," Richards said. "I think this is a better matchup for us, way better than Oregon. Oregon, they play a wide offense, brought our posts out of the paint, so I think this game should be better for us."

That could force Notre Dame to think just a little more.

"We're going to have to work really hard on the offensive end to take great shots," Mabrey said. "We have a really versatile offense, five players that can score, so finding the open person and not settling for the easy shot but taking the great shot."

Considering that versatility, Baylor's guards know the onus will be on them again to put together a defensive game to match what Cox and Brown do inside.

"It definitely will be a statement game again," Jackson said. "I think we've proved it, but you never get through proving yourself. There's always going to be doubters out there."