Viewpoint Walker’s stellar start bodes well for UConn
STORRS — Geno Auriemma wasn’t sure exactly how to quantify Megan Walker’s position. He surely knows where Walker should look to for inspiration.
“I don’t know how you really describe Megan,” Auriemma said after the 6-1 sophomore demonstrated in Sunday’s 85-53 opening victory over Ohio State that there certainly can be a fourth major presence on the UConn women basketball team. “She’s a big guard or a smaller version of a forward. I don’t know what she is.”
The Huskies’ first half was impressive. The second half was fairly hard to watch. And it was in the opening minutes that what Walker can do was on full display. Fifty seconds in, she stole the ball from Carmen Grande and went the length of the court for a layup.
A minute later, Katie Lou Samuelson stole a pass from Carly Santoro and found Walker in the lane for a layup. Then Walker found Naphessa Collier for a layup. When Walker rattled in a 3-pointer in transition, it was, 16-7.
Four minutes into the season, just like that, Walker had seven of her 15 points.
From the day Walker walked through the door at Storrs as the national high school player of the year from Virginia, there was no doubt about her skill level.
“She’s got a lot of skills obviously,” Auriemma said. “She’s a talented kid. She obviously has to add a lot to our team for us to be the kind of team we want to be. Today was a really good start.”
Yet it’s not only about the start for Megan Walker. It’s about the start and the finish and everything in the middle. Each day. Every day.
And that’s why the Hall of Fame coach points to No. 24 to motivate No. 3.
“I show her Napheesa (Collier) all the time,” Auriemma said. “I say, ‘Look, that’s your role model right there. That’s how you’ve got approach this game: With that kind of motor.’ Pheesa goes. With Megan’s talent, if she gets a motor like Pheesa and goes, she can be incredible. It wasn’t there last year and it’s there’s more often this year.”
The Role Model had 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting in the opener. Crystal Dangerfield, showing a dive-on-the-floor grit that Auriemma joked used to have her heading to the trainer’s room, had 18 points. Samuelson led with 19 points. Those three, we know what they’ll do. And Walker, who shot 6-for-11 with six rebounds?
“The Megan we saw today is the Megan we know,” Collier said. “It’s really a mindset for her, because she hasn’t played as much as she will this year. You can definitely see her confidence up and her aggressiveness. I think big things are going to come from Megan.”
So what do you tell her?
“You’re not going to be able to do things physically at the end of the game that you might have done at the beginning, but your effort can always be the same,” Collier said. “You can always give 100 percent. It’s really flipping a switch for her mentally to push through when she’s really tried.”
Walker would play a good game last year and fail to repeat it. When the team was banged up against Temple, she responded with a career-best 22 points. It didn’t last.
“It wasn’t easy,” Walker said. “I was a little shocked. I felt like I didn’t know everything. I didn’t have it figured out.”
“Freshman year was a challenge for me. I didn’t want to be the same coming back. I worked really hard in the offseason. I challenged myself.”
From the 10 pounds of muscle she put on in the weight room during the offseason to a determined aura, Walker certainly appears built to last this season.
“A totally different person,” said associate coach Chris Dailey, who was honored before the game for her induction into the Women’s Hall of Fame. “Her freshman year was hard for a lot of reasons. I saw starting this spring, she smiled more probably in May and June than I saw all last year. Some of it is circumstance. Some of it she was responsible for, and she knows that. On the offensive end, she’s got a lot of confidence. She needs to work on the other end.”
Yes, the team’s entire defense as Auriemma joked is a work in in progress like the roads around Waterbury.
“When you come into a program like ours, there’s such a high premium put on competing,” Auriemma said. “You have to be a very, very, very competitive person to be successful here. I thought last year right from the beginning, right from the first week of summer school, there was this almost unaware of, ‘I’ve got to compete.’ It may have been a shock to her system.
“When we did see it and we thought we were getting some place. it would disappear. This year she has been much more consistent. There’s a lot I’m constantly on her about every day in practice. She’s got an awful lot of ability. She can do a whole bunch of things.”
Kia Nurse, Gabby Williams, Azurá Stevens, Samuelson, Collier, Dangerfield it was difficult for a freshman to get minutes when it really counted last year, although Walker did average 5.8 points in 15.5 minutes a game.
“You don’t have the chances the starters have, that first group,” Walker said. “It definitely involves a lot of focus.”
This season is very different.
“You have be honest with yourself and your team,” Auriemma said. “Her and Christyn Williams were kind of handed two starting spots. It’s not like after a really contentious training camp they won those two spots.
“Unfortunately, a lot of kids coming out of high school, that’s what they’re used to. Now, you’ve got two kids in our lineup I’m really hard on. They have to earn it every day. Megan’s role is huge. We just don’t have a lot of margin for error (with depth).”
In other words, you’re starting, but you’ve got to make sure your motor runs to the finish.
“I’m willing to do my job and prove I deserve that spot,” Walker said. “Napheesa is a great role model. Knowing how to compete, no plays off. It’s an every day grind. UConn is at another level than any school in the country. “
“Megan has come a long way mentally and physically,” Samuelson said. “Just the way she carries herself when we’re playing is a lot different than last year. When she plays like this, it’s, OK, the offensive will flow better. We have a fourth option.”
That’s a fourth option opponents will not be happy to see.