- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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This was Matt Mitchell's master plan: Be on the lookout for two talented, athletic post players who decide to transfer. Sell them on Kentucky, adding them to an already terrific group of guards. Reap the benefits. Genius!
OK, obviously, we're just kidding. Mitchell, the Wildcats' coach, couldn't be happier to have DeNesha Stallworth, who transferred after two seasons at Cal, and Samarie Walker, who came to Kentucky after a semester at UConn. But the fact that they both ended up at Kentucky was just unpredictable good fortune for the soaring Wildcats.
Walker is from West Carrollton, Ohio, just more than two hours' drive from Lexington, Ky. However, she says -- as you may recall from the two or three (or 5,000) stories written when she left UConn -- proximity to home actually wasn't an extremely high priority for her.
Meanwhile, Stallworth is from Richmond, Calif., some 15 minutes from Cal's campus. It really was "home," yet she felt she needed a change to reach her potential.
What does Mitchell glean from these two stories of kids who started college on opposite coasts and now play side-by-side in the Bluegrass State?
"If you try to follow some formula in recruiting, you are just out of your mind," he said, chuckling. "Because you're dealing with unique individuals every single time. That's why it's so time-consuming and demanding.
"They were both, clearly, in great programs before. So it's just an individual thing, and it's hard to always make sense of. I'm just really glad both of them are at Kentucky now, because they are thriving and doing well."
And so are the Wildcats. Ranked No. 5, Kentucky has won 17 games in a row; the only loss was in its second contest of the season on Nov. 13 at defending NCAA champion Baylor.
In SEC play, Kentucky is 6-0 and tied with Tennessee; that matchup, incidentally, doesn't happen until March 3 in Lexington to end the regular season. Kentucky faces No. 18 South Carolina on Thursday in Columbia, S.C.
The Wildcats are coming off a 97-53 romp over Auburn on Sunday that left first-year Tigers coach Terri Williams-Flournoy fuming because Kentucky didn't call off the press despite a big lead. Mitchell essentially said, "Look, that's the way we always play," and anybody who has seen Kentucky the past several seasons can attest to that.
Senior guard A'dia Mathies put on a shooting clinic Sunday with 24 points and again leads the Wildcats, averaging 15.4 points. Sophomore guards Jennifer O'Neill (9.5 PPG, team-best 50 assists) and Bria Goss (9.4 PPG) join Mathies, Stallworth and Walker in the starting lineup.
But what has changed about the Wildcats' formula is that Kentucky has more size, while still maintaining its ability to press teams to the point where they're about to lose their sanity.
Thanks to both the individual and collective work of Stallworth and Walker, Kentucky is even more intimidating on defense than previously.
"In the past, we had to get four guards on the court and usually an undersized post player, and then turn you over a million times to score," Mitchell said. "We're a little different now. The turnover margin is still important, but we can defend at the rim now. We can try to make you rush it there. Our identity is still rooted in defense, but the size has changed us."
Kentucky has forced 498 turnovers this season, compared to 299 committed by the Wildcats. Walker, with 41 steals, leads a group of four Wildcats who have at least 25 steals apiece. Also, Walker has blocked 29 shots; Stallworth has 28 blocks.
Mitchell lauds their ability to get outside and defend, but also to be anchors in the paint. It gives the opportunistic Kentucky guards a little more feeling of security if they take calculated risks defensively.
"What used to happen is when we took chances, we had to get it right -- or you saw a lot of shots at the rim against us," Mitchell said. "We can talk about blocking shots now, and that's not something we talked about a whole lot until [Stallworth and Walker] came along. They're very, very valuable defensive weapons.
"You'll still see them down in a stance 35 feet from the basket, not letting a player get by them. So they both can come out and pressure the basketball on the perimeter; they're very gifted, athletic and strong."
They've also forged a friendship off the court that helps their chemistry in games.
"Samarie and I feed off one another and work well as a team," Stallworth said. "We have great communication with each other to help the other out."
Walker was a much-lauded UConn recruit who as a freshman left the Huskies midway through the 2010-11 season. She sat out a year for the transfer, then played the second semester of last season for Kentucky. In 25 games, she averaged 8.7 points and 7.2 rebounds.
This year, Walker has started all 19 games -- as has Stallworth -- and her averages are 9.4 points and a team-best 8.2 rebounds. And, as Mitchell mentioned, she has fully bought into his system defensively.
"It was challenging for me when I first got here," Walker said. "At UConn, we played very, very hard on defense. But it was still a mental transition for me here, more than physical. I lost some weight, and that helped me get quicker, too."
Meanwhile, Stallworth was the Bay Area star who was supposed to be part of a bright Cal future but it just didn't ever click quite right. She transferred from Berkeley after two seasons and said it was by chance that her final three schools on the second go-round of "recruiting" happened to be in the SEC.
"Maybe the SEC was just meant to be for me," Stallworth said. "My teammates and coaches, the Big Blue Nation at Kentucky -- it's such a great support system here. Even though I'm so far away from California, just the people around me make me feel I am at home.
"And I actually like sweet tea now, although when I'm back home in California, they look at me like I'm crazy for that."
Mitchell doesn't act as if he had the magic wand as a coach to bring out the best in Stallworth or Walker. To the contrary, he praises UConn's Geno Auriemma and former Cal coach Joanne Boyle (now at Virginia) for their success as coaches. For that matter, look at UConn and Cal now, the latter currently coached by Lindsay Gottlieb. Both are ranked in the top seven in the country. Things seem to have worked out fine for the Huskies and Bears, and for Walker and Stallworth.
"I don't believe in geographical cures -- that you just move somewhere, and things get better," Mitchell said. "I think a player has to make some changes as a person, to make the decision that they are going to be the player that they can be.
"If we've done anything, we've tried to help create an environment where that is able to happen every day."
Then Mitchell, seeing a smiling Stallworth walk past, pointed toward her.
"That young woman right there has made an unbelievable transformation in herself," he said. "It's not about me. It's all DeNesha."
Stallworth acknowledges that her growth as a person has helped her basketball. She always has had a sensitive heart. She befriended a young fan of hers while she was a still a high school player in California; the girl was deaf, and that got Stallworth interested in learning American Sign Language. She's studying that now and sees a post-basketball future working as an interpreter.
"I know hearing-impaired kids sometimes feel left out, and I want them to be included and recognized," Stallworth said. "It's a hard language to learn, but it's worth it. I think patience is very important for that; just taking your time."
It took a little longer than they expected for Stallworth and Walker to find just the right fit in college. But it was worth it, too.
15dBonnie D. Ford