Kentucky's Walker gobbling up rebounds at near-record rate

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 19, 2014 

Missouri Kentucky Basketball

Kentucky's Samarie Walker secured a rebound against Missouri's Bri Kulas during UK's 80-69 win last week. Walker's game has improved since she began seeing a therapist last year. "It's definitely helped a lot," she said.

JAMES CRISP — AP

  • NCAA WOMEN

    First and second rounds in Memorial Coliseum

    11 a.m. Saturday: Kentucky (24-8) vs. Wright State (26-8)

    1:30 p.m. Saturday: Syracuse (22-9) vs. Chattanooga (29-3)

    6:30 p.m. Monday: Second-round game

    Tickets: Single-session reserved tickets are $22 for adults (ages 19-64), $15 for youth (0-18) and for seniors (ages 65+); all-session ticket prices are $36 for adults, $24 for youth and seniors

    Purchase: Online at www.ukathletics.com, in person at Joe Craft Center Ticket Office or by calling the UK ticket office at 1-800-928-2287

Samarie Walker believes every ball coming off the rim belongs to her.

She'll nudge opponents out of the way with her backside. She'll shield them from the rim with her outstretched arms and sharp elbows.

She'll outrace them to the three-point line to corral a loose one.

"I just love to rebound," Kentucky's senior forward said this season. "Just love it."

Sometimes it's not just opponents she's nudging out of the way.

"Samarie is stingy," UK junior guard Bria Goss said.

Goss even jokingly got up in Walker's face during a game when Walker swiped two rebounds out of Goss's clutches.

The guard had eight rebounds in the game and Walker took two others, "which meant I would've had 10 and that would've been my first double-double," she pretended to pout to reporters.

"She was livid," Walker said about Goss after the Missouri game. "We had it out during the game. I was like, 'Bria, just go on and run down the court and spot up.' She's still mad about it."

The guard isn't the only one to have regular run-ins with Kentucky's leading rebounder, who has a chance to finish as the school's second-best all-time per game by the end of the Cats' NCAA Tournament run.

In 93 games, far fewer than most in the UK record books because she missed time as a transfer from Connecticut, Walker has gobbled up 749 boards for an 8.1 per-game average.

That puts her just shy of Victoria Dunlap, who averaged 8.3 rebounds a game in her career.

Walker's 13 double-figure rebounding games this season are seven more than her next-best teammate, DeNesha Stallworth.

That's mainly because Stallworth concedes them to Walker.

Stallworth is helpless to stop her.

"Usually, it's about a 99.9 percent chance that if we're both going for the rebound, Samarie won't let go of it," Stallworth said. "I just throw my hands up and say, 'You've got it. You've got it,' and I take off down the floor as fast as I can."

It's who Walker is and it's what makes her such a key player for No. 3 seed Kentucky as it starts its fifth straight NCAA Tournament run on Saturday morning in Memorial Coliseum.

The Cats will face No. 14-seed Wright State in a doubleheader that includes No. 6-seed Syracuse versus No. 11-seed Chattanooga.

Walker will be a big key in the first-round game against the Lady Raiders, who like to push the tempo and score in transition. If Walker takes away the extra chances for that by swiping rebounds, she can help slow the nation's fourth-highest scoring team.

She's likely to get lots of chances against a Wright State team that starts four players 5-foot-8 or smaller and got outrebounded by an average of five per game this season.

To hear her teammates joke about it, Walker would try to outrebound the Lady Raiders on her own if she could.

"I want to grab every rebound," Walker said. "If I can reach it, I want it to be mine."

Her position coach can always tell how the senior is going to play based on how aggressively she goes to the rim.

"You can tell she's really into a game when she asks, 'Hey, Coach, how many rebounds do I have?'" UK assistant Shalon Pillow said. "She never asks about points or anything but rebounds."

Walker became a rebounder first at a young age.

When she was in a youth-league game, she struggled to hit any shot from anywhere.

It was like the rim had an elephant on top of it.

"I just stopped playing," Walker recalled. "I just didn't want to play anymore."

That's when Walker's dad Samuel told her to find something else to focus on.

"He said, 'If you're not making shots, get really good at rebounding or defense,'" she recalled.

"It worked. ... Now it's like, if I don't get a rebound — whether it's in my area or not — I'm upset. I'm like 'I need to go get that. That should've been mine.'"

Walker's focus seems to become even more razor sharp in NCAA Tournament play, where she has been one of UK's most consistent players the past two seasons.

In her eight games at Kentucky, Walker is averaging 10.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks while hitting 51.6 percent of her shots.

Teammates and coaches just hope she'll get more and more selfish as the tournament progresses.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com.

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