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November 6, 2012

WBB: Hand-picked



It was going to be a thankless job. Ieasia Walker knew that.

But when tapped by one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game, to come and be a point guard for her new team, what was Walker going to do? Refuse?

"I've always been one not to quit. I've always been one to stick with it," Walker said. "This was the right move.

"Sometimes you've got to get through tough times to get where you want to go."

South Carolina is in a unique position of having two of the best and worst jobs for an athlete. The first is starting quarterback for Steve Spurrier. The second is starting point guard for Dawn Staley.

A player in one of those two roles will learn how to be the absolute best they can possibly be. They will win. They will succeed later in life, at whatever they choose to do, because Spurrier and Staley never forget those who give themselves over to be taught.

But the process of getting to that point is so, so difficult. Both coaches were so good at what they did when they played that the ones who study under them have to be better than perfect in order to please them. Compliments have to be earned, and are few and far between; the critiques and brow-beating can only be handled by players who have as much of a steel spine as the coaches do.

Walker knew that she had earned a rare honor four years ago, when Staley laid it out simply. She was going to rebuild the Gamecocks' program, and she needed a point guard to do it. She wanted Walker.

There was a lot to love about Walker. Like Staley (Philadelphia), she was from the Northeast (New York). Like Staley, Walker grew up with a basketball in her hands, playing pickup games against boys throughout her childhood and learning how to be tough, then be talented.

Of course she accepted Staley's challenge. Then she got to Columbia and found out just how hard it was going to be.

"It hasn't been easy," Walker admitted. "I think she had great expectations for me, and I did as well, but personally, as far as what mine were, I wasn't meeting them. She wanted me to pick them up a little bit quicker. It took me a little bit more time.

"I started to pick it up a lot more last year, and she was starting to trust me more. This year, I know she has full trust in me."

Which has the Gamecocks, who have been aching to get back on the court ever since their stellar 2011-12 campaign ended, feeling that they can replicate - if not improve - that success.

Walker has been the point guard since she enrolled, but over the past three years, she has been the "other" guard on the floor. La'Keisha Sutton and Markeisha Grant were the scorers for the past two seasons, the ones who wanted the ball in their hands in crunch time, the ones who made things happen. While Walker was always there, dishing the pass or hustling for the rebound, she never had to be depended on to score.

This year, the Gamecocks will work their crop of freshman guards into the system, and will concentrate on throwing the ball into the post to get their points, at least during the early season. That job falls to Walker, but so do the others.

She has to direct the offense. She has to score when the team needs a pick-me-up. She has to teach her understudies so the program will be in good hands when she leaves after this year.

She has to lead.

"I want to be as vocal as possible, and also lead by example," Walker said. "My leadership comes from having confidence. I've actually had some classes in it. I took one in the summertime that was part of my major (business management and marketing).

"My biggest weakness is speaking up. There are things that need to be said, whether or not they hurt people's feelings. I've been doing a much better job."

Walker's backup is freshman Khadijah Sessions, a Parade All-American from Myrtle Beach. She's the kind of lethal scorer that can take over games, but in her first campaign, Staley is gradually working her in.

There are two reasons for it. One, Staley knows that to throw everything at a freshman right away might hinder development. Two, Walker is the point guard. Period.

"It's Ieasia's job," Staley said. "She's done it year-in and year-out for us. She's one that I picked to run our show. At times, Khadijah will play the one and we'll move Ieasia to the two when we need a little bit more scoring from her. But it is Ieasia's job."

Staley's confidence in Walker speaks volumes. Two years ago, Staley substituted more coaching for screaming in practice and it paid huge dividends. The evolution of Walker is more evidence that the new style works.

"Coach Staley really worked with me," Walker said. "She still wanted me to be here although I wasn't picking things up as fast as she wanted. My teammates kept encouraging me. She knows that I can make the right decision without her verbally saying it. It helps to calm me down and everybody else will be calmer and not so antsy. It helps them to know that I'll make the same call that coach will make."

Her teammates are fully behind her. The Gamecocks rallied behind the leadership of Sutton throughout her tenure and Walker, beside Sutton for three years, learned the tricks of the trade. She immediately assumed the role once Sutton finished.

"Ieasia's definitely the leader on this team," sophomore Elem Ibiam said. "She brings a lot of leadership. She's been here for four years, so we all look to her - 'Ah, I don't know what to do, let me go ask Ieasia.' She definitely helps our younger point guards, helps get them in line. She even helps me, cause I've told her, 'Ieasia, I need your help.'"

"She brings the experience factor," said forward Aleighsa Welch, a candidate to take over Walker's leadership reign after the year. "When you look at our team, I think the thing that many people point at is youth. We have experience and a great leader in Ieasia. She's been here, she's been through it all. She's kind of the one who sets the tone and helps us kind of follow her lead."

Walker has been through it all. She rode through the relentless pressure of playing under Staley's demanding eye. She has had to make decisions throughout her career of how best to play her position - to be a scorer, when go-to shooter Valerie Nainima went down with a knee injury; to keep the flow of the game going as a true point guard, when Sutton and Grant took over the offense last season.

It's all come together to prepare her for this moment. The Gamecocks begin the season on Friday, and Walker will be at the point. The team's no-nonsense stated goal is to reach the Final Four this year, and Walker will have to be the one to do most of the carrying.

She's the point guard. The leader. The one everyone looks to. The extension of Staley from the sideline to the floor.

Is she ready?

Yes.

"I had the freshman experience -- you get there, practice is tough, coach is getting on you, getting on you, and I'm away from home, so I'm by myself," Walker said. "I was like, 'Was this the right move? Should I be here right now?'

"My next-door neighbor and I played one-on-one every day, and he used to beat me, and foul me, and push me on the concrete. It helped me have a mental toughness and a physical toughness about me. I feel like even though I'm a small point guard, I'm solid and strong. I'm not going to be a pushover."



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