UCLA's Markel Walker (23) heads upcourt as California's Gennifer… (Elaine Thompson / Associated…)
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Markel Walker has an adventurer's spirit. She was born in Philadelphia and after her second year of high school moved to Pittsburgh so she could live with her sister. From Pittsburgh she chose to cross the country and play college basketball at UCLA.
The 6-foot-1 senior had mapped out a plan.
"I wanted to get a good degree and then go back to Philadelphia and open up 'Power Centers,'" Walker said Friday before third-seeded UCLA (25-7) practiced for its first-round NCAA women's basketball tournament game against 14th-seeded Stetson (24-8) on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at St. John Arena.
Walker, who is third on the team in scoring with a 10.8 average and second in rebounding at 7.3, will leave UCLA with a degree in African American studies and she hopes to put together a business plan that will allow her to open centers in Philadelphia that will take the place of high schools that have closed.
"I want places for girls to go and play sports or to study, or just a place to be with friends," she said.
First though, Walker would love to take the Bruins through a few more games.
Even though she wore a walking boot Friday after "tweaking" what she said was a sprained left ankle, Walker first limped, then ran through practice.
Walker said she enjoys traveling through life this way, limping, walking, running and always learning.
"Basketball provided me this great opportunity to learn about different things and different parts of the country," she said. "And now, when I go back east to Philly, to my community, I'll have a lot of new knowledge to give back to the place that gave me so much."
Walker gained some national attention when the Bruins upset California, 70-58, in a semifinal of the Pac-12 Conference tournament. The Bears had beaten the Bruins twice in the regular season, but Walker had a game-high 23 points and seven rebounds in the upset.
Second-year UCLA Coach Cori Close said she has grown to appreciate the reasons Walker came so far for college.
"She chose the opportunity to experience different things, to broaden her horizons," Close said. "She recognized something in herself that said, 'I want to be pushed and grow.' She's been homesick, she's had injuries, but she has grown tremendously. It's the culmination of what's happened inside her that led to a game like Cal.
"It's a great time for her to get hot on the hardwood. She can control the team because she has such credibility."