As a freshman at Pepperdine next season, Sarah Richen will try to bring a championship to Southern California.

On Saturday, she will attempt to deny an area team a title.

Richen and her San Francisco Sacred Heart Cathedral High team will face Alemany at 1:15 p.m. for the Division III girls' state basketball championship at Arco Arena in Sacramento.

It will be both teams' first appearance in the final.

The Fightin' Irish (21-10) can thank Richen, their 6-foot-2 senior center, for getting them there.

Known to Sacred Heart Cathedral fans as "Inga," she scored 32 points in the Northern Regional final last Saturday to spark a 56-50 overtime upset of defending state champion Lafayette Acalanes.

"Sarah has been one of the cornerstones of our program," Fightin' Irish Coach Brian Harrigan said of Richen, the 1996-97 player of the year in the San Francisco area. "She has helped put our program on the map."

Pepperdine Coach Mark Trakh is just glad Richen found her way to Malibu after considering Arizona, Oregon State and Santa Clara.

"This kid is the real deal," Trakh said. "She can run the floor, she can score, she's physical. . . . Sarah is a dream."

Richen admits it hasn't always been that way.

As a freshman and sophomore, she often butted heads with Harrigan.

"I was a young buck," said Richen, who averages 19 points and 12 rebounds. "I'm much more coachable now."

Richen also has developed into the team's emotional leader, although she's had little choice.

Injuries have whittled the Sacred Heart Cathedral roster to eight able bodies, five of whom are freshmen.

"She's really had to serve as a big sister to all of them," Harrigan said. "I've watched her grow up not only as a basketball player but as a person. This is someone who will achieve in life."

Richen has already led a group of overachievers.

Runners-up in the Central Coast Section, the Fightin' Irish began the state playoffs seeded last in the eight-team Northern Regional.

In the first round, Sacred Heart Cathedral upset previously unbeaten Bear River, the state's top-ranked Division III team, 46-44.

Richen, who broke her nose in a game earlier this season, had it bloodied again in the first quarter of the regional semifinals against fifth-seeded Northgate. She returned to the game and scored 19 points in a 51-34 victory.

That performance and her 32-point, 12-rebound effort against Acalanes helped Richen earn Cal-Hi Sports' state player of the week award.

At each step of Sacred Heart Cathedral's improbable postseason run, Richen's personal following has grown.

The only active senior on the roster, Richen was the focus of a boisterous all-male fan club that followed the team to each regular-season game. The entourage has grown from six to more than 20 students in the playoffs.

"It's incredible," freshman guard Toni Russell said. "Everyone is out there chanting, 'Inga, Inga, Inga.' It's the Inga Fan Club."

Don't count Pepperdine junior guard Samantha Rigley among Richen's fans. At least, not yet.

Rigley graduated from Alemany in 1995 after her teams twice fell a game short of reaching the state final.

Rigley and Richen got along fine last spring when Richen visited Malibu on an unofficial recruiting trip.

"I took a very strong liking to Sarah," said Rigley, The Times' 1993-94 Valley player of the year. "But my loyalty this week is to my school, to Alemany. I think she can handle it."

Said Richen: "That's cool. I can live with that."

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