Baylor senior guard DiDi Richards returned to the court Tuesday night, 38 days after she suffered a spinal cord injury in practice that briefly left her with no feeling or movement in her legs.
Richards entered the No. 4 Lady Bears' game at South Florida at the 6:59 mark of the first quarter and quickly scored on a layup. She finished with four points, seven assists and two steals in 30 minutes in Baylor's 67-62 win.
"It was a very emotional day," Richards said after the game, noting it also was the birthday of her grandfather, who died two months before Baylor won the national championship in 2019. "It was exciting to play a game again, because I haven't played since March. It's always been my role to bring energy to the court, and I think that's what we needed."
Richards was injured Oct. 24 in a collision with teammate Moon Ursin during practice. She suffered a spinal cord injury without radiographic abnormality, which causes temporary impairment. It was a nonstructural injury, but Richards initially dealt with paralysis from the hips down.
Richards began to regain sensation later that evening. She was released from Baylor/Scott & White Hospital on Oct. 26, but needed a walker. Then she began extensive rehabilitation.
Richards said she started to walk without a walker a couple of weeks ago.
"But it was still really slow," she said. "More recently, everything just kind of clicked in. And then I was like, 'Well, if you can walk, you can run, and if you can run, you can dribble.' I just started trying new things, and pushing myself a little bit more. I just did my first full practice [Saturday]."
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said she was amazed at how quickly Richards was able to progress. Richards did a lot of her initial rehabbing in the gym while the Lady Bears practiced, as she said it lifted her spirits to be around the team as much as possible.
"Each day, there were just bigger milestones that she reached," Mulkey said. "The doctors kept saying she would eventually be back, but I just didn't know at first. What I witnessed for several days and even weeks made me wonder. All I cared about was that she could walk again, and live a normal life and be happy.
"She's just one of those people, you're not going to keep her down long. She was just champing at the bit to get back."
Doctors cleared Richards to return to competition on Monday.
A native of Cypress, Texas, she won the 2020 Naismith and WBCA awards for National Defensive Player of the Year, plus was named the Big 12's top defender. Richards averaged 8.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 52 steals last season for Big 12 champion Baylor. She also started as a sophomore for the Lady Bears' 2019 NCAA championship team.
"I never really thought I wasn't going to play this season," Richards said. "I just knew that somehow, some way I was gonna get off that walker. I didn't know how quick it was going to be."
Ursin, a 5-6 guard who suffered a concussion in the collision, was cleared to return to practice Nov. 16 and had 10 points and four assists in Baylor's 82-37 season-opening victory against Central Arkansas on Nov. 25. Ursin had three points and five rebounds Tuesday for the Lady Bears, who were led by Queen Egbo's 25 points and 11 rebounds.
"DiDi is probably our best passer. I just love having her out there," Egbo said. "She's just a leader."
Mulkey said she wasn't intending to play Richards as much as she did, but the tight game warranted it.
Richards said she felt winded at times and also chuckled about picking up a technical foul in the second quarter. Mulkey said she thought Richards was just expressing frustration about her own play; Richards said she wasn't surprised to get a technical because "it's too quiet in the gym, and I'm loud."
Mulkey said she was thankful to have Richards, her most experienced player, in action again. She said Richards has not been shying away from contact in practice, and she knew Richards was ready despite the ordeal she went through.
"She's back to playing DiDi basketball," Mulkey said. "We needed her tonight, and the lift is just the mere presence of her on the floor."