NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Fans at Memorial Gymnasium last Thursday night probably wished they had brought umbrellas to watch Vanderbilt take on Auburn.
After all, Cierra Walker made it rain all night long.
Walker, the Commodores’ junior sharpshooter, lit up the Tigers for a career-high eight 3-pointers and tied a career-high with 25 points. She finished 8-of-12 (.750) from 3-point range, knocking down six treys – tying her previous single-game record – in the first half alone.
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Walker said her Vanderbilt teammates were the biggest reason for her hot hand against Auburn.
“We worked for what we wanted [on offense] and I think we got what we wanted,” Walker said. “I was just in the right place in the right time and my teammates were able to find me.”
Though she has started every game in 2018-19, the junior Walker has stepped up as a vital piece of Vanderbilt’s roster in the early goings of SEC play. Injuries have limited the availability of guard Chelsie Hall – a Freshman All-SEC honoree last season – as well as freshmen Jordyn Cambridge and Brinae Alexander for much of the year. Walker has responded by playing 40 minutes in four of five SEC games this season and scoring at least 15 points in seven games overall.
Head coach Stephanie White said opponents now focus their film study on Walker and center Mariella Fasoula, who form a lethal inside-out game for the Commodores.
“We try to put [Cierra] in situations where she can be a floor-spacer for Fas, and they have to guard at least one of them,” White said. “Cierra’s teammates did a good job of finding her [against Auburn]. Auburn let her get loose in the zone, which probably wasn’t the game plan.”
Walker showed flashes of potential almost immediately after her arrival as a member of White’s first freshman class in 2016-17. She averaged 6.6 points per game and topped out at a single-game season-high 21 while leading the team with 2.9 assists per game. But stress fractures in both feet limited Walker to just 22 games in her first season.
In 2017-18, the Oregon City, Oregon native rebounded to play in 31 games – with 17 starts – and average 8.7 points as a second-year guard. Walker quickly became one of the best 3-point shooters on Vanderbilt’s roster, hitting 42.5 percent of her shots from deep and setting a career-high with six threes against rival Tennessee.
Now, as a junior, Walker ranks third in the SEC in made 3-pointers (47) and is a career 39.2-percent shooter from downtown. She has also developed a chip on her shoulder as the target of opposing defenses.
“Oh, there’s definitely a competitive edge,” Walker said. “Whether it’s me or Fas, we don’t want to be shut down. We don’t want to let that get in our heads. We’ve just got to play our games. It definitely makes me want to score and get open more, but I’ve just got to take what the defense gives me.”
Walker isn’t likely to sneak up on SEC opponents anymore. In fact, White has leaned more on the junior in leadership situations, particularly as the Commodores weather a bevy of injuries during conference play. After the Auburn game, White praised Walker’s improved defense and point-guard skills, assets that continue to make her a dangerous SEC player – along with her 3-point prowess.
“I think she’s taken more ownership of that,” White said. “She’s not a very vocal kid to begin with, but she’s done a better job in deadball situation where we’ve asked her to make sure we’re all on the same page. [Against Auburn], Kaleigh was tired, and Cierra handled the ball against one of the best defensive teams in the country. That’s a growth process for her, and she’s done an outstanding job of that.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.