Ieasia Walker noticed opposing players wrap their arms around the basketball when she’s near. To her, it’s one of the highest compliments.
The senior point guard for South Carolina’s women’s basketball team has 61 steals on the season and is three steals away from moving into fourth place for career steals at USC. Steals have made Walker a force on a defensive-minded team.
“I think sometimes she steals it even before the official is in the position to make a call,” coach Dawn Staley said.
Though Jocelyn Penn’s record for steals — 359 for her Gamecock career — is out of reach for Walker, she could challenge for third place on the career steals list depending on how deep into the postseason the Gamecocks play. She has 229.
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Walker is averaging 2.8 steals per game with seven regular season games remaining. If she maintains that pace, she could best her personal record for steals in a season (79) from last year.
Though Walker’s affinity for steals is the best by a Gamecock since Penn played from 1999-2003, she’s never garnered recognition with an All-SEC defensive team selection. She was named to the All-SEC second team her junior and sophomore seasons.
Walker’s contribution to the Gamecocks’ defensive reputation is enough for her.
“I think for our team, because we’re known for our defense, it makes such an impact that when teams prepare for us, they notice and say, ‘Hey, she’s a really good on-the-ball defender and you’ve got to protect it,’ ” Walker said.
Staley said Walker’s steals might be overlooked because senior Sancheon White is usually assigned to guard the opponent’s best player. Though White is known for her defensive prowess, Staley said it’s Walker who “quarterbacks” the defense.
With then-seniors Markeshia Grant and La’Keisha Sutton as primary scoring threats on last year’s team, Staley watched Walker sacrifice her offense to be a better defender. Asked to do more offensively this season with a less-experienced team, Walker has let her defense create offense. She’s averaged 9.5 points per game this season and is the second-leading scorer on the team in conference play.
“I think she made up her mind that she’s going to affect the game from a defensive standpoint and then whatever comes after that is icing on the cake,” Staley said.
Walker said she tries to anticipate her opportunity if an opposing player is dribbling, usually being able to tell when someone is about to crossover or switch hands. When a player goes up for a layup, Walker said the ball is usually down by the waist, another opportunity for her to snatch it.
A former point guard, Staley never tried tweaking Walker’s technique to force steals. Walker doesn’t remember how she came to be so skilled at it, but it was something that came easy for her in high school and made her stand out to Staley.
Walker said she takes it personally when she’s scored on. As opponents have started to take notice of her defensive talent, using both arms to secure the basketball around her, each steal is that much more precious. She enters each game thinking about how many she can tally.
“I’m not that tall, so I can’t get blocked shots, so I’m like, well, I might as well go for the steal instead,” Walker said. “I don’t like to get scored on, so I keep that competitive mentality and just got good at steals.”