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Walker a steady presence in Stallworth's absence

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Samarie Walker had a double-double in UK's 85-63 win at Alabama to open SEC play. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Samarie Walker had 12 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and four steals in UK's 85-63 win at Alabama to open SEC play on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
For most of the last two years, you could hardly bring up Samarie Walker's name without mentioning DeNesha Stallworth, and vice versa.

Together, the two UK seniors established themselves as one of the nation's top post duos, helping to reinvent Matthew Mitchell's previously perimeter-oriented style of play in the process.

But in December, Walker learned she would have to play without Stallworth for at least a few weeks. Nonetheless, she wasn't about to change her approach.

"I have 12 other teammates -- nine that can play, I think, if I'm counting correctly -- but there was no pressure on me specifically," Walker said. "We all had to do a good job of coming together and filling in for her and making up for her points."

No. 6 UK (13-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) has won four times in five outings as Stallworth has recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery, the only defeat coming against second-ranked Duke. Whether it's been on her mind or not, Walker's presence has had a lot to do with that.

"In DeNesha's absence, Samarie has been really big for us," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said.

Walker is averaging 11.2 points and 8.8 rebounds in the games Stallworth has missed, including a 12-point, 13-rebound effort in an SEC-opening win at Alabama on Thursday. In spite of missing her first five shots from the field, Walker's energy didn't wane, which is exactly why Mitchell was so pleased with her performance.

"If she will do that and just not let any external thing affect her and she stays with it, she is a double-double waiting to happen," Mitchell said. "She is just so strong, athletic, explosive, talented, skilled."

Mitchell will be looking for a similar effort on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET as the Wildcats play host to Florida (11-3, 1-0 SEC). The Gators have proven a historically tough matchup, with UK's five straight wins in the series all coming by seven points or fewer.

"We, I think, have really good games because they always have tough players and their coach (Amanda Butler) gets them ready to play and our style of defense has some difficulties against them because they always have good guards," Mitchell said.

Headlining that group of guards once again is senior Jaterra Bonds, who is averaging 16.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists.

"She's so explosive and can get out and make plays," Mitchell said. "Sometimes when you have one player, one really, really super ball-handler that is explosive, sometimes if you're not sharp in the press one player can really, really hurt a press."

She wouldn't match up with Bonds regardless, but Sunday could mark Stallworth's return from injury. It has now been more than three weeks since her surgery and Stallworth will be evaluated in practice on Friday.

"Our goal is to try to work her back in the first chance she can play," Mitchell said. "And so if that's Sunday, that'd be great."

But with the way players like Walker, Azia Bishop, Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper have played, Mitchell has no plans to rush his star forward/center.

"Even if she were back Sunday, I still think the team's mindset has to prepare for her role to possibly not be that big, which means we have to do what to do what we've been working on and we have to be successful without her," Mitchell said.

For UK, that means ratcheting up the pace and relying on Walker to patrol the paint.

When Stallworth first went down, Mitchell said it offered an opportunity for the Cats to improve in the long term. With Stallworth now on the cusp of coming back, Walker believes UK has done that.

"I think the main thing is us just coming closer together as a team, including with her," Walker said. "I think we've realized we don't have to necessarily count on just one person to do anything and everything."

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