women’s basketball Walker on a tear
NEW ORLEANS — Napheesa Collier saw the difference. Crystal Dangerfield noticed it, as well.
Forward Megan Walker returned from Christmas break a different version of herself — more confident, more determined, less hesitant.
“She’s just been building each game,” Collier said Wednesday following UConn’s 75-33 rout of Tulane, in which Walker poured in a career-high 34 points. “You can just see her confidence getting up, the way she attacks the basket, the way she goes after rebounds, just everything she does.”
There is no clear line, no definitive time when big-time recruits either blossom or wilt. Some, like Maya Moore, break out their freshman year, and some never at all.
“It happens at different times for everybody,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Sometimes you just have to experience a bunch of really good stuff, have some great successes. That kind of fills you with the kind of confidence you need.”
The Huskies had been waiting for Walker, the consensus No. 1 player in the Class of 2017, to show more consistency. They had seen flashes of her potential, but nothing more.
And then came Christmas break.
“She struggled a little bit in the beginning, but she’s come back, I think since Christmas, and has been a different player aggressive-wise and mentality-wise,” Collier said. “You see it in how she plays now.”
The numbers back it up. Since Christmas, Walker has taken her game to another level: she’s averaging 16 points, 5.8 rebounds and is shooting 49.1 percent over her last five games.
On Wednesday, she became the first Division-I player (male or female) to outscore the opponent in a conference game since 2002.
Walker, in her usual soft-spoken tone, said she’s found herself being more aggressive of late. For the season, she’s averaging 12.6 points and 5.9 rebounds across 31.3 minutes.
“I just took my time around the rim and just focused on making layups,” she said. “Coach is always on me and about it, and he should be. I just focused on that tonight.”
Auriemma said he recently had a conversation with Walker that went something like this: “I said, ‘Meg, the two things I want to see you do is, I want to see you offensive rebound and get to the free-throw line. You just don’t do those things enough.’ ”
Against Tulane, Walker pulled down 10 rebounds and got to the line 10 times, hitting eight free-throws — all career-highs.
Walker has played 46 games (14 as a starter) since graduating from Monacan High School in Virginia, where as a senior she was lauded with numerous national player of the year awards. Only two times before Wednesday had she topped 15 points in a game at UConn.
“When you’re young, you tend to not have great success,” Auriemma said. “Every day you go home from practice you’ve just finished screwing a bunch of stuff up, so you can’t feel that good about yourself.
“Now, if all of a sudden that changes and you’re pretty happy with the way you’re playing, and coaches are happy with the way you’re playing … that just builds on itself, just like when you’re playing lousy adds to it.”
As the Huskies march deeper into American Athletic Conference play and toward the NCAA Tournament, the need for Walker to morph into a nightly contributor grows. The Huskies, 15-1 and ranked No. 2 in the country along with Baylor, will look a bit more imposing in the paint if the 6-foot-1 sophomore plays to her potential.
“Think about it, you know, she’s a really tough matchup for people,” Auriemma said, excitedly. “If we can get her consistently going, and then you put her and Pheesa together in those two spots, that’s a difficult combination for most people.
“The shots that Megan takes are generally really, really good shots. She’s so strong, you know. She can be so physical that she just overpowers you sometimes inside.”
Lately, the Huskies have seen what Walker can do.
“We’ve had a lot of team talks and a lot of individual talks,” Dangerfield said. “I think she really took everything to heart and knew that she could change some things. She’s done that.”