No one needs to remind Megan Walker that she did not get off the bench in the UConn women‚Äôs basketball team‚Äôs overtime loss to Notre Dame in the 2018 NCAA Final Four semifinals in Columbus, Ohio.
She remembers it well.
But the sophomore wing is a big reason the Huskies were on a plane Tuesday to Tampa, Florida, for another national semifinal matchup Friday night with the reigning national champion Irish. The Final Four bid is UConn‚Äôs 12th straight and 20th overall.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm excited, I‚Äôm happy,‚ÄĚ Walker said. ‚ÄúYou can‚Äôt really explain it because this year is totally different for me. Just being able to contribute this year and have an impact on the game is amazing.‚ÄĚ
It started for Walker in the season opener with 15 points and six rebounds against Ohio State. And while she and her team have had their rough patches, the Chesterfield, Virginia, native is in a good place heading to Amalie Arena.
In 35 games (she missed two in December with strep throat), she is averaging 12.0 points and 6.3 rebounds. She was named to the all-American Athletic Conference third team. In seven postseason games, she‚Äôs at 13.1 points and 7.9 rebounds. After being named to the AAC all-tournament team, she has played all but three minutes of the last three NCAA Tournament games.
If there was a positive to Katie Lou Samuelson not being able to play in the AAC Tournament, it was how Walker and freshmen Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa responded.
‚ÄúIt helped with Megan realizing she had to do more,‚ÄĚ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. ‚ÄúAll along, we‚Äôve been trying to get her to do more and do more and do more or try to be more confident, be more aggressive.‚ÄĚ
That came through in Sunday‚Äôs 80-73 win over Louisville in the Albany Regional final.
The Cardinals, as they did in their Jan. 31 home win over the Huskies, were willing to give Walker the open 3-point shot. In the rematch she answered the challenge by nailing four treys in the first half as UConn took a seven-point lead.
‚ÄúI had a conversation with Coach and we talked about them possibly sagging off of me,‚ÄĚ Walker said. ‚ÄúHe was like, ‚ÄėThat‚Äôs what I think they‚Äôre going to do.‚Äô So I was like, ‚ÄėAll right, I‚Äôm going to knock in open shots early.‚Äô And that‚Äôs what I did. I knew I had to be ready to knock in open shots.‚ÄĚ
Her biggest 3 may have come in the first quarter with Louisville on a roll and holding its biggest lead at four points.
Walker had her shoe come off two possessions earlier and struggled to get it back on. But she still found nothing but net from behind the arc that started a 10-0 run that put the Huskies in front to stay.
‚ÄúThat wasn‚Äôt stopping me,‚ÄĚ Walker said with a smile. ‚ÄúThe ref didn‚Äôt want to stop the game so I had to hurry up and put it back on and get ready for the next play.‚ÄĚ
Walker didn‚Äôt make a basket in the second half but continued her strong work on the boards against the Cardinals‚Äô front line. She finished with 12 rebounds to help the Huskies to a 42-36 advantage.
That followed an 11-rebound effort in the Sweet 16 win over UCLA Friday night.
‚ÄúCoach preaches, ‚ÄėThis is your job, this is what you have to do in order for us to win and be successful,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ Walker said. ‚ÄúI felt I did a good job of that.‚ÄĚ
And Walker capped off her first NCAA Tournament double-double with a free throw with 14.9 seconds that made it a three-possession game and started the celebration.
‚ÄúShe‚Äôs been consistent rebounding,‚ÄĚ Williams said. ‚ÄúAnd she knocked some big shots down for us.‚ÄĚ
All five starters hit double figures for the Huskies and they accounted for all 80 points. Samuelson led the way with 29 followed by Williams (16), Walker (13), Napheesa Collier (12), and Crystal Dangerfield (10).
But in his postgame analysis, Louisville coach Jeff Walz highlighted Walker.
‚ÄúSamuelson made some big shots, but I‚Äôve got to give credit to Megan Walker,‚ÄĚ Walz said. ‚ÄúMegan Walker was the difference in the first half. At times you‚Äôve got to roll the dice a little bit and I thought we did a really good job on Napheesa. But we backed off of Walker at times to help on Collier, and she knocked down shots. I thought she was the difference for them. And I know it was in the first half, but she really kept them going and gave them a bounce."
All the way to Tampa.