Women's NCAA Tournament • 6-3 forward "just kind of blossomed this year," coach says.
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Kristen Riley remembers what it was like as a high schooler, watching her sister play for BYU in the NCAA tournament.
Even then, she knew it was something special.
"It just felt different - it was this whole atmosphere," the now-senior forward for the Cougars says. "I had never seen that much excitement before."
It's been one of Riley's goals to get back to the tournament, and now the moment has arrived. She'll be taking women's college basketball's biggest stage, but this time as one of the leaders BYU needs to make a run.
The 6-foot-3 forward is the Cougar's stalwart in the middle, and leads the team in scoring and rebounding. Her presence in conference play helped earn her West Coast Conference player of the year honors. And with good reason.
"She's just kind of blossomed this year," coach Jeff Judkins says. "She can shoot it, she's a great guard in the post, she's a great rebounder, she's very quick on the press and can score quickly. She's becoming the kind of player I thought she could be when I recruited her."
Riley has the kind of natural size and athletic ability that drew a lot of attention during her high school career in San Clemente, Calif. She elected to follow in the path of her sister, Lauren Riley, and become a Cougar.
Early on, it became clear to Judkins that she could one day be a star, but the seeds of that belief weren't necessarily from her athleticism. Like her sister, she was a natural worker.
Judkins suspects Kristen's father, Steven Riley who played in the NFL for 11 years, might have had something to do with that particular trait.
"In four years of coaching she's never dogged it," Judkins says. "A lot of people have her potential and never seem to really do anything with it. Kristen works hard all of the time."
But it's only been this year that Riley has ramped up from starter to star. She's increased her points, rebounds, steals, assists - just about every critical statistical category. She's gone from being a dimension of the team's offense to one of its focal points.
Particularly in conference games, Riley has answered the call. She notched nine double-doubles as BYU finished second in the WCC.
"I knew it was definitely time to elevate my game - I knew the team needed me to play better," Riley says. "More than anything, I wanted my teammates to have a great season, too. The biggest thing is that we really started taking what the defense gives us, and trying to be unselfish."
Many nights, that means feeding the ball to Riley. But other times - as in the WCC tournament - Riley takes a less prominent scoring role and contributes by rebounding and defending. She scored only 12 combined points in the tournament games, but came up with double-digit rebounds in both contests as BYU earned a berth to the Big Dance.
Saturday's contest against DePaul is likely to be one of the games when the Cougars need Riley to be an all-around star. The Blue Demons lack depth on the inside, but have much more tournament experience than the Cougars. There's a glaring mismatch that Riley knows she'll have to exploit.
Her team believes she'll step up. Her coaches believe she'll step up. After all, ending its NCAA dreams in the first round isn't a fitting end for the Riley saga.
"I've had a Riley - either Lauren or Kristen - on my team for eight out of my 11 years at BYU," Judkins says. "It's been a blessing. It's going to be a sad day when I don't have a Riley around."
No. 10 BYU vs. No. 7 DePaul
Tipoff • Saturday, 4:30 p.m. MT
Location • All-State Arena, Rosemont, Ill.
The Set-up • The Cougars aim for a first-round upset in its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2007.
Riley's big jump
Junior stats: 14 starts, 8.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.4 apg, 16 blocks, 29 steals
Senior stats: 32 starts, 11.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.2 apg, 31 blocks, 39 steals
No. 10 BYUvs. No. 7 DePaul
P At Rosemont, Ill.
Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
Riley's big jump
Junior season • 14 starts, 8.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.4 apg, 16 blocks, 29 steals
Senior season • 32 starts, 11.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.2 apg, 31 blocks, 39 steals