STORRS, Conn. -- It takes a while -- and a lot of effort -- for a UConn Huskies player to get to the point where she gets postgame praise from coach Geno Auriemma without several "don't let your head get too big" caveats.
But junior forward Megan Walker played that kind of game Sunday in an 81-57 victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Auriemma said No. 4 UConn is now in a position where Walker is going to get a whole lot of touches on the ball each game.
"Let's see if you can produce every night," he said. "And you know what? She has. There is a lot left in her tank of what she can do. She's just beginning to scratch the surface. And I'm really proud of her. She's worked really hard."
Walker has been exactly what has been needed for a team that lost two senior stars in Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson from last season, but also a distinct identity.
Who are these Huskies supposed to be? Is it senior point guard Crystal Dangerfield's team? Is another dynamic duo going to lead the Huskies, with Walker teaming up with sophomore Olivia Nelson-Ododa? Are they a sum-of-all-parts team that will rely on its talent, but also the fuel that comes from competing at a place that has 11 NCAA titles and has reached the Final Four a dozen years in a row?
These Huskies are all of those things, as we saw against an Irish squad that right now doesn't bear much resemblance to the Notre Dame we've gotten used to the past several years. The Irish lost all five starters off last season's national runner-up team to the WNBA. Now they are mix of youngsters, transfers and players in roles they haven't been in before. Add in a few injuries, and it was a pretty beaten-up looking bunch that left Gampel Pavilion on Sunday evening.
It wasn't Notre Dame's worst loss, marginwise, in the series with UConn. That came in 2002, when the Irish were similarly depleted by graduation and fell by 27 to the Huskies. But Notre Dame dropped to 5-6, is not ranked and probably concerned about missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995.
"It's about continuing to battle, and I thought we did," Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. "It's about the little things we can do better in practice. The discipline of knowing where to be. You can control rebounding, setting screens, using screens, the fundamentals.
"I think we can definitely get a lot better. We just have to figure out how we're going to score. We haven't been able to play great defense. We hoped to be good in January; that was our goal. The biggest problem is the schedule. We really overscheduled because we like to play really good teams, and this team wasn't ready for our schedule. And it's not going to get easier."
But while Notre Dame really is rebuilding, UConn is remodeling. The Huskies (8-0) were hoping to have guard Evina Westbrook, but she didn't get a transfer waiver and won't be able to play until next season. She would have helped, but a lot of good pieces are still in place.
Yet Walker is probably the key piece in terms of consistent production. And she stood out Sunday with 26 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks. That followed a 29-point game at Seton Hall on Thursday.
Walker has a certain look to her now, something McGraw noticed, too.
"Her body looks different, she's done some work there," McGraw said. "And she's much more aggressive offensively; she's looking for her shot more and she's shooting it well. She's very much improved, not in the shadow anymore. It's her chance."
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The 6-foot-1 Walker came to the Huskies as the top recruit from the Class of 2017, and her ability was evident. But she also kind of coasted a bit. Players older than her took most of the responsibility. Walker didn't start her first season, playing 15.5 minutes per game. She averaged 5.8 points and 3.3 rebounds.
"Meg had a really, really difficult freshman year, and she was looking for reasons why," Auriemma said. "I said, 'The reason is: You don't work hard. You work at a high school level.' Last year, she started to figure it out. But last year, it was easy to kind of blend in."
That's because Collier and Samuelson were seniors, and they were already in that place UConn veterans reach, where they truly get it. Walker averaged 12.1 points and 6.7 rebounds as a sophomore, but now, it's really her turn.
Of course, that hasn't happened just because those other players graduated. You don't get to inherit a starring role at UConn based on your class year alone. You have to earn it. Auriemma told Walker after last season that she needed a plan. She knew what that meant.
"I fixed my body, got in the best shape possible," said Walker, who is fitter and more toned this season. "Got in the gym and worked my butt off. Then he asked me, 'Are you ready?' And I was like, 'I have no choice but to be ready.' It was just knowing all summer it was our time. No one is here to cover our butts for us."
Walker is averaging 22.1 points and 8.9 rebounds, and she's looking like the mature version of the recruit that came to UConn with such promise. The blossoming for stars in Storrs doesn't always happen on the same timeline. But for the most part, it eventually happens. And that's what continues to keep the UConn machine running at such a high level.
"It would have been easy for that kid to just quit, give up, transfer," Auriemma said of Walker. "That's the American way today. But that kid has shown a lot of toughness. She was great today."