KINGSTON, R.I. — Watching Samarie Walker on film this week, Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma can tell that the Kentucky forward has landed in a comfortable place.
"Kids commit with their heart and their soul," Auriemma said Monday morning.
Walker didn't do that at Connecticut, he said. His team takes on its former player and UK in the Kingston Regional finals Tuesday night.
"It became evident early on that she didn't have that at Connecticut," he said. But "the success she's having now at Kentucky probably means she has all of those things in place right now. That's what you'd hope for any kid."
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It's been a well-documented story line as UK prepares to play UConn with a trip to the Final Four on the line. Walker reiterated that she had a good experience at Connecticut, but she wanted to be closer to home and her family, and that led to her transfer to Kentucky.
Hearing people speculate about why she left was difficult, though, Walker said.
"Sometimes, it would make me frustrated," she said. "I made my own decisions, and my decision was for me."
Auriemma scoffed at people's ideas "that if a kid isn't at a particular place then they're not a good player, or if they can't make it at one place, it's because they're not a good player," he said.
Sometimes, recruiting isn't a perfect science, and it doesn't always produce the perfect fit.
UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said he thinks the sophomore, who has averaged 13 points and 12.7 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament, has dealt well with the questions this week.
"She's handled everything beautifully," he said.
A funny dance
Auriemma has won seven national championships, so he had his tongue firmly pressed in his left cheek when he called getting to see Mitchell's version of "the Dougie" from Midnight Madness two years ago "one of the highlights of my life."
He again saw Mitchell dance with his team on television after UK beat Green Bay in the second round. The UConn coach theorized that maybe the dancing was a "Southern thing.
"I don't think we go for that up here in the Northeast, the land of the Puritans," he said.
But then Auriemma took it a step further, taking a shot at his friend John Calipari, coach of the UK men's team.
"(Mitchell) probably has to dance and jump up and down and stand on his head," Auriemma said. "Look who the men's coach is down there. He's got a long way to go to catch up to my buddy."
On his pre-Final Four teleconference today, Calipari was asked which of his coaching friends he'd be rooting for when UK takes on Connecticut Tuesday.
"Obviously, back in the New England days, I've always been a fan of his," Calipari said of Auriemma. "Now, I won't be when they play our team. I'm a bigger fan of Matthew Mitchell. But Geno is a great guy. He could coach basketball, truly, at any level. Male or female. He's a Hall of Fame coach. On top of it, a really, really good guy."
Mitchell also mentioned on Monday that after UK advanced to the regional championship game with a win over Gonzaga on Sunday, the first voice mail he received was from Calipari.
"It's a really, really supportive atmosphere at Kentucky," Mitchell said. "The two staffs are very close."
Best friends Amber Smith of Kentucky and Tiffany Hayes of Connecticut will face off on Tuesday, and one of them will help end the college career of the other.
The former high school and AAU teammates from Winter Haven, Fla., both seemed excited.
"It's going to be interesting, and it's definitely going to be bittersweet for one of us," Hayes said.
The two said they've touched base this week, but they haven't discussed the upcoming game.
"When we speak, it's just about missing each other and being glad we can see each other," Smith explained.
Hayes is a year younger than Smith, who redshirted for UK. Hayes said she always admired how her friend and former teammate played.
"I definitely look up to her," Hayes said. "She used to have that dog in her all the time, especially on defense."