Tuesday, March 15, 2011

SPORTS >> Cabot’s Walker savors home visit

Leader sports editor

HOT SPRINGS — Lauren Walker and her South Alabama teammates didn’t get to represent the Sun Belt Conference in the NCAA Tournament.

That spot was reserved for UALR.

But Walker did get to make a trip that was almost as welcome during the recent conference tournament at Summit Arena. Walker, a Cabot High School graduate, got to play college basketball in her home state.

“We actually have a lake house here and we like to go to the lake a lot,” said Walker, standing outside a Summit Arena interview room following the Jaguars’ first-round tournament victory over Louisiana-Lafayette.

“I see my parents when I come back home,” Walker said. “We just have a good time. They miss me, I miss them. I try to come home as often as I can.”

It was a rare playing date in Arkansas for Walker, whose team plays in the Sun Belt East Division while Arkansas State and UALR toil in the West. Schedules haven’t permitted Walker to show her stuff in the Natural State until the conference tournament.

Walker, a junior guard, scored four points in the Jaguars’ 58-53, first-round victory over the Ragin’ Cajuns and then she scored two during UALR’s 73-54 victory that eliminated South Alabama.

UALR advanced to beat Western Kentucky in the championship and make it to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. The Trojans face Wisconsin-Green Bay on Sunday in Wichita, Kan.

Walker may not have enjoyed the loss to UALR, but she is enjoying the Sun Belt competition.

“The level of play, it’s competitive,” she said. “Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky, big-time teams. We beat Western Kentucky this year and it’s not the easiest. I think we do pretty good.”

Walker, 5-11, was an all-state selection and a McDonald’s All American nominee her senior season at Cabot, where she lettered all four years. She averaged 14.7 points a game and 6.5 rebounds as a senior and helped the Lady Panthers to consecutive conference championships in 2006 and 2007.

“Cabot, the age group and stuff where I came in, we had some competitive players,” Walker said. “All of us grew together like the chemistry we have at South Alabama. So that made us really good and playing AAU really helped.”

Among Walker’s Cabot teammates was Kim Sitzmann, the former UALR standout guard who holds school records in three-pointers made, assists and steals.

“Kim is one of my good buddies,” Walker said. “She’s playing overseas now. She had a pretty good role at UALR. The Sun Belt Conference, it’s up there.”

Walker developed an interest in playing in the Sun Belt herself, and when South Alabama, located in Mobile, turned out to be the only conference member to recruit her heavily, it made for an easy choice.

“I’m from Cabot and I kind of wanted to get away from home, get a new atmosphere,” said Walker, an avid beach goer while in Mobile.

“And being down in Alabama, that’s a lot different. You need to grow up and meet new people so I think that really helped.”

Walker has blossomed into a three-point specialist at South Alabama and entered the tournament third in the Sun Belt with a 43.2 three-point shooting percentage.

“I didn’t shoot as many threes in high school but when I came in, we’re a shooting team and we’re known for three-point shooting, so I stepped up my game,” Walker said.

“I had to shoot a lot of threes and this year I think I was ranked third or something like that.

“That’s my role. I go on the court to do it.”

Walker is one of the first off the bench and clearly enjoys her teammates. In pregame introductions she can be seen on the floor enthusiastically greeting the starters when they are introduced.

But the lineup will change drastically next year and Walker is set to assume a greater role her senior season.

“Big time,” Walker said. “We’re losing three guards, two starting senior guards. I’m definitely going to have to step up my role.

“And we have three freshman guards coming in so we have three returners so all of us are going to have to step up our game.”

South Alabama finished 17-13 this season.