UK Women's Basketball

UConn transfer Samarie Walker excited about UK debut

Samarie Walker, left, gave a shoulder rub to teammate Crystal Riley during the University of Kentucky women's basketball team photo day held in the Joe Craft Center on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Monday, August 22, 2011. Charles Bertram | Staff
Samarie Walker, left, gave a shoulder rub to teammate Crystal Riley during the University of Kentucky women's basketball team photo day held in the Joe Craft Center on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Monday, August 22, 2011. Charles Bertram | Staff

In the past year, she's gotten to be Louisville's Monique Reid, Duke's Haley Peters and Tennessee's Glory Johnson.

But on Sunday, Kentucky's Samarie Walker won't have to pretend to be someone she's not anymore.

"I'm very tired of being other people," she said on Tuesday when asked about her year as a glorified practice player. "I just want to be myself again."

On Sunday, the 2010 McDonald's All-American will get her first chance to put on a Kentucky jersey with her name on it and play in a game.

It's something the 6-foot-1 sophomore forward from Ohio has been waiting for since she walked away from Connecticut and moved to Lexington last January.

Walker played in her final game for the Huskies on Jan. 15 — coincidentally against UK archrival Louisville — and since then, her only court time has been on the practice floor, per NCAA transfer rules.

"Practicing for a year straight and not getting to play in a game is kind of hard," Walker said. "I'm just so excited to get to be on the floor, playing in a game."

As difficult as it was to wait, Walker admits it probably was good for her.

"Having to sit out puts a lot of things into perspective, and it humbles you a lot," she said. "It definitely makes you remember how much you love and miss the game."

When she left Connecticut, there were many questions about why. At the time, Coach Geno Auriemma said Walker told him she had lost her passion for basketball.

When asked about that, Walker didn't go into great detail about her parting with Connecticut, aside from saying: "UConn just didn't work out, and it kind of put a damper on me and made me feel like I didn't have a passion (for basketball), but I still do."

She hopes to show that passion starting Sunday for No. 8 Kentucky during a big test on the road against No. 3 Notre Dame, which lost in the national title game last season.

'Beast around the basket'

Some might worry that Walker's transition from practice player to actual post player will mess up the unbeaten Cats' chemistry.

That shouldn't be the case, players and coaches said. If anything, she'll make Kentucky a more versatile team.

Her head coach said Walker has been such a big part of the team since she arrived last January that it's like she's already been out there.

"She has been practicing as a member of our team," Matthew Mitchell said. "She gets reps in game-day practice with game prep and everything. We've included her in everything."

Senior guard Crystal Riley understands the range of emotions and concerns that Walker must have. Riley was there just a few years ago, herself a mid-season transfer from Louisiana State.

Riley remembers being nervous.

"I had a lot of emotions because I hadn't played in a year," Riley said. "It was just a lot going through my head, but I just tried to play as hard as I could."

That's the advice Riley said she plans to give Walker before they take the floor in South Bend, Ind.

"(I'll) let her know she doesn't have to come in and make a spectacular play," Riley said. "We have people to back her up. She just needs to come in and relax."

Walker doesn't have to come in and make the spectacular play, but don't be surprised if she does.

"We'll be a better team" with Walker on the floor, Mitchell said. "She fits in well with what we do. She is an absolute beast around the basket, very strong rebounder, very strong finisher."

"Strong" seems to be the word everyone uses when asked about Walker, who averaged 6.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 18.8 minutes in 17 games as a freshman at UConn.

"She's probably one of the strongest people I've ever played against," said former Kentucky star Victoria Dunlap, who plays against some top players these days in the WNBA and as a professional overseas. "She's just really, really strong. She's difficult to box out, to get around. She made me better by making me work hard in practice."

Keyla Snowden, a UK senior guard, said she's looking forward to playing in a game with Walker.

"Samarie's going to add just another threat on offense, as well as her presence on defense," Snowden said. "Samarie being out there is going to open it up for the guards because she's such a huge presence inside."

Dunlap, who left UK with the second-most rebounds in school history, noted that Walker is an impressive rebounder.

"We would do drills, and it was like seeing myself go up and get a rebound out of just nowhere," Dunlap said. "She's very strong and, if she can keep using her body and size, she's going to be good."

For now, Walker will settle for being on the floor again.

It's been a long wait.

These final few days have been the hardest, especially sitting on the bench for big wins over top-10 teams Duke and Louisville.

And then on Sunday against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Walker could finally see the bright lights of the court at the end of the transfer tunnel.

"I was definitely counting down," she said. "At every media timeout, I was thinking, I only have 16 minutes to go (until I can play). ... I've been counting down this whole season."

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