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Home Away from Home

January 23, 2014
Courtesy: Texas A&M Athletics
(photo: Texas A&M Athletics)

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Courtney Walker leaves Native Oklahoma and thrives in Aggieland

by Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine

From her home in Oklahoma City, Tonda Walker acknowledges that she was initially quite upset about her daughter’s decision to withdraw her basketball commitment from the University of Oklahoma and instead sign a national letter-of-intent with the Texas A&M women’s basketball program.

The elder Walker understood the reasoning for her daughter’s decision. From an early age, the bright-eyed and intellectually-advanced Courtney Walker had displayed an uncanny interest and understanding for the way her intricate toys were constructed and how they worked. When she was 3 or 4, Courtney began making her own toys.

A few years later, she received an electric scooter, which she promptly disassembled just so she could reassemble it.

“That’s just the way her mind works,” Tonda Walker said of her 19-year-old daughter, now a starting sophomore guard for the No. 17-ranked Aggies, who play at Missouri on Thursday night. “She has always loved science and math. I told her a long time ago that she really should consider being an engineer.”

There have been times when Tonda regrets ever making that statement.  In addition to her brilliance in the classroom, Courtney also displayed an early mastery of skills on the basketball court. When she was 7 and playing at the YMCA in Edmond, Okla., Courtney would typically take over games, stealing the ball from her opponents and even teammates. She’d single-handedly outscore the other nine players on the floor with ease.

Her dominance on the floor continued as Walker matured, and she was such an outstanding player as a teen-ager that she was recruited by nearby Oklahoma before she ever even played a game in high school. Courtney Walker first committed to OU when she was just 14, which delighted her mother because of the proximity of the campus.

It wasn’t until a couple years later, when Courtney began researching schools with both strong engineering departments and outstanding women’s basketball programs, that she began expressing a desire to at least look at other universities like Texas A&M and Texas. Her mother was not thrilled when Courtney decided to play basketball at A&M while majoring in computer engineering.

“I will be honest with you,” said the personable Tonda Walker. “I love Gary Blair. I love what he is doing with my daughter on the court and for her academically. But I would have definitely preferred for her to only be an hour away from me and in the state of Oklahoma. I am OK with it now because it is so obvious to me that she is so happy at A&M.

“But I am also going to be honest with you on this: I even worked on her last fall (during her freshman year at A&M). I kept telling her she could still transfer. She would say, ‘Mom, come on, I love it here.’ After making many visits to A&M, I am convinced now that she’s where she wants to be. When she is happy, it makes me happy. And if she is happy, it is much easier to make the six-hour drive to College Station. I know she feels at home there at A&M.”

She has certainly made herself at home ever since debuting in an A&M uniform last year. Walker was a part of the most highly ranked recruiting class in the history of Aggie women’s basketball when she signed with five other players, including Courtney Williams, Jordan Jones, Curtyce Knox and Chelsea Jennings.

And it was Walker who made the most significant impact among the freshmen in 2012-13, starting all 35 games the Aggies played last year and averaging 10.4 points per game, which was second to only Kelsey Bone. Walker scored at least 20 points four times last season and was named to the All-SEC Freshmen team.

Once the calendar flipped to March, she was especially impressive, earning a spot on the All-SEC Tournament team after averaging 13 points in three games in Duluth, Ga. as the Aggies beat South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky to win the 2013 SEC Tournament. Against the top-seeded Lady Vols, Walker contributed a team-high 18 points, and she followed up that stellar performance with 14 points in the championship game win over Kentucky.

She was so valuable in the Aggies’ run to the championship that she practically never came out of games. She played 40 minutes against Tennessee and 38 minutes against Kentucky.

“She was really good for us last year, which wasn’t a big surprise because we saw how good she was every day in practice,” A&M head coach Gary Blair said of Walker. “She moves well with and without the ball and she is just a pure jump shooter. It’s very obvious to everyone that she is a really good basketball player with a great upside.

“But we want her to keep growing as a player. That’s not going to be easy for Courtney because she is in such a demanding major. Engineering is very hard. I mean it is tough. As the courses get harder, she is going to have to learn to balance the class work with basketball. Last semester, her grades were not where she wanted them to be, and she knows she needs to pick it up.”

While she has struggled at times during her sophomore year with the increased demands of the classroom, Walker hasn’t faltered under the pressure of a bigger role on the basketball court. Without Bone, who chose to forego her senior season to enter the WNBA Draft, the Aggies have needed Walker to take on an even bigger scoring role.

So far, so good.

Through the first 19 games of this season, Walker leads the Aggies by averaging 13.2 points per game, while averaging a team-high 32.2 minutes per game. She is shooting 42.7 percent from the field and a stellar 88.9 percent from the free-throw line, which would lead the SEC if she had enough attempts.

“I would say I’m a lot more comfortable out there this year just because I am no longer a freshman,” said Walker, who was ranked as No. 1 overall prospect from the state of Oklahoma by ESPN HoopGurlz in 2012 and was the 2011-12 Gatorade Oklahoma Player of the Year. “Every time they would call a play last year, I would look at Kelsey and see what I was supposed to do. I understand the pace of the college game better now, and I know what to expect from playing in the SEC.

“I really want to do whatever I can to help us win a regular-season championship. Winning the SEC Tournament title was great last year, but I think a regular-season championship shows consistency throughout the entire season. That’s what we are looking for now. We want to be a consistent power in the SEC.”

Walker is certainly drawing plenty of attention from her SEC opponents, who are often placing their best perimeter defender on the 5-foot-8 guard. That has made things more difficult on Walker, but she is responding extremely well.

Walker has played a huge role in the Aggies’ current eight-game winning streak. On Monday, she was named the SEC Women’s Basketball Player of the Week after helping Texas A&M to wins over No. 8 South Carolina and Mississippi State. She led the Aggies in scoring in both of those wins.

Walker hit a key shot with 58 seconds remaining in overtime to extend Texas A&M’s lead to four as the Aggies defeated South Carolina 67-65 on Thursday, and she scored a team-high 16 points against Mississippi State on Sunday. Those impressive performances continued a trend that started on a recent mid-January road swing that took the Aggies to LSU and Georgia—both ranked in the Top 25 at the time of the games—Walker played a huge role in both wins.

Walker struggled from the field against the No. 12 Tigers, hitting only 4 of 17 shot attempts, but her 18-foot jumper with 40.2 seconds left proved to be the game-winner in the Aggies’ 52-48 victory in Baton Rouge.

Four days later, Walker scored a team-high 16 points to lead the Aggies to a 58-44 win over No. 25 Georgia in Athens. That victory was particularly rewarding to Walker because it was in her father’s home state. Her father, Lester Turner, lives in Atlanta, along with several other members of Walker’s family, so Walker has her own cheering section whenever the Aggies play in Georgia.

That’s an added benefit of playing in the SEC, she says. She had grown up in Big 12 country, and she says she always figured she would play in the Big 12, even when she changed her commitment from OU to A&M. But she says she has thoroughly enjoyed competing in the SEC, and she has completely embraced the traditions and culture at A&M, even though her friends back in Oklahoma still playfully chastise her for being a “Texas traitor.”

Switching commitments certainly wasn’t easy, Walker acknowledges. Making the phone call to inform OU head coach Sherri Coale of her intentions was extremely difficult.

“I told Courtney that if she wanted to go and visit other schools, she would have to be 100 percent honest with Coach Coale and let her know,” Tonda said. “We could perfectly understand why Coach Coale was upset. She told me she was attempting to build a program around Courtney for two years and to call her the year before she signs, it was hard for her. I was upset at Courtney at that point, too. But she has always been very strong-willed and makes her own decisions.

“When we went to A&M, the first thing that we did was Coach Blair took Courtney to academic facilities. We went to the Bright Complex and to the engineering department and all over campus. When we left to go home, Courtney asked me if I noticed that we had never gone to the gym or locker room. That right there kind of spelled it out for me. It told me that Gary Blair and his coaches really cared about Courtney’s overall development, not just basketball. Looking back on it all, she made the right decision, even though it has made life more difficult on me in order to see her play.”

As long as Courtney remains so driven in the classroom and on the court, however, Tonda Walker says she will gladly continue to drive the extra miles to support her daughter, who is making the most of all her opportunities in Aggieland.

Follow the 12th Man Foundation on Twitter @12thManFndtn and Rusty Burson @12thManRusty

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