The off-court friendship between Kentucky forward Samarie Walker and center DeNesha Stallworth has translated to strong on-court chemistry.
Their cohesion has given the No. 7 Wildcats (10-1) a formidable inside tandem and helped them forge a nine-game winning streak entering Friday night's game against Alcorn State (0-8). Things have taken off the past four contests with Stallworth averaging 15.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game during that stretch, while Walker has contributed 11.5 and 8.3 respectively.
Their breakout game was a blowout of DePaul in which they combined for 35 points and 23 rebounds. Kentucky has also beaten Middle Tennessee and swept Pepperdine and UC Santa Barbara last week in California, with each scoring 12 points while combining for 17 rebounds in that last game.
"We read each other very well," said Stallworth, whose per-game scoring average of 11.9 points is just behind leader A'dia Mathies (13.5).
Walker, third at 9.3 points, was more philosophical about their relationship, joking, "She's the yin to my yang."
Her statement basically sums it up, considering how quickly the two McDonald's All-Americans have connected since transferring last year.
Walker arrived after playing a semester at Connecticut and becoming eligible for Kentucky last December. The 6-foot-3 junior went on help the Wildcats reach their second Elite Eight in three years while she made the NCAA All-Regional Tournament team. Walker finished with averages of 8.7 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds per game and blocked 22 shots.
In the meantime Walker helped the 6-3 Stallworth adjust to the program after two seasons at California, where she averaged 13.1 points and 6.4 rebounds. Stallworth sat out last year under NCAA transfer rules, during which she observed how Walker and her teammates execute coach Matt Mitchell's up-tempo system predicated on pressure defense.
"The biggest thing was probably just the game pace and just my confidence because I wasn't too sure and was just thinking too much," Stallworth said of what Walker taught her. "She just told me, 'Something just clicks and you realize that you just have to play.' And when it did click, everything became a lot easier and it just flows better."
Added Walker, "I tried to tell her the pace of the game's going to be completely different after sitting out for a year and she didn't want to believe me. ... Lo and behold, her first game, the first exhibition game, (she said), 'Samarie, I'm tired.' The first two minutes."
Fortunately for Kentucky, Stallworth adapted and the Wildcats' flow has been pretty fast and dominant this season. But their 96-64 rout of DePaul stands out for distinguishing the players' offensive styles.
Stallworth, who had 17 points and 13 rebounds that night, describes Walker as a player content to blow through a defender on the way to the basket whereas she's fine taking jumpers. Walker, who had a game-high 18 points and 10 boards against the Blue Demons, agreed.
Both clearly like to rebound, with Walker leading Kentucky at 7.8 per game and Stallworth next at 5.3. That's the inside presence the Wildcats will need when the Southeastern Conference schedule begins next week against Florida, and coach Matthew Mitchell believes his two post players have even more potential.
"They are passing the ball well," Mitchell said, "and one thing that is happening is they are both really good athletes, they both have long arms and can get up to the rim. When they are challenged, sometimes they are able to get the ball up off the backboard and the other is able to kind of get in there and finish and tip it in.
"You are just seeing some good play between the two post players, and I think that will bode well for our team if that continues."
No doubt, Kentucky has had many opportunities to hone things as a busy December winds down. This weekend marks the third time this season the Wildcats will play two games in three days; after facing Alcorn State (0-8) on Friday, they host Marist on Sunday.
Alcorn State is coming off a 59-54 home loss to Southeastern Louisiana on Dec. 21. Senior guard Carolinsia Crumbly leads the Braves with 11 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.
In Alcorn State and Marist, Walker sees two more chances for her and Stallworth to hone the threat they have created for Kentucky on the floor.
"Our relationship on the court, we got to build that when we were on the practice team and got to play with each other finally on the Blue (regulars) squad," Walker said. "It's still continuing to build and I think we'll always continue to build our relationship on and off the court until we graduate."
Note: Mitchell said that junior guard Maegan Conwright will not play Friday after injuring her knee in practice and undergoing an MRI on Thursday.