It’s a road game, but Cierra Walker is finally coming home.
When Walker and the Gonzaga women tip off Thursday night at Portland, the senior guard expects to see more than a few familiar faces in the crowd
“It will be my parents, cousins, friends and whoever else shows up,” Walker said earlier this week.
That will mean a lot for Walker, who has seen few familiar faces since her stellar prep career in Oregon City, Oregon.
Walker was a three-time national finalist in the National Football League’s Punt, Pass and Kick competition. She was also one of the best 3-point shooters in Oregon prep history, and drew plenty of attention from colleges, Gonzaga included.
She chose Vanderbilt, where as a junior in 2018-19 she started all 29 games and ranked sixth in 3-point shooting in the Southeastern Conference.
“It was a cool experience, living in Nashville and playing with some pretty cool teammates,” Walker said.
Vanderbilt, however, suffered through back-to-back seven-win seasons and several players left the program.
The move to Gonzaga brought Walker closer to home but also nearer the goal of being on a winning program.
“It was such a great decision,” Walker said. “The team is amazing and the culture here is unmatched.”
She had to sit out the 2019-20 season, however, because of NCAA transfer rules.
Finally back in action last season, she played in front of mostly empty gyms because of the pandemic. On many occasions, Walker made the difference for the Zags as they won the West Coast Conference regular-season title for the 16th time in the past 17 seasons.
Playing in all 27 games, she started 25 on the way to shooting 40.5% from long range. Critically, she hit two big 3-pointers to hold off a BYU rally in a game that went far in deciding the title.
That, too, happened in a near-empty Kennel.
Her parents, Cliff Walker and Tami Bannick, have made up for lost time this year, attending every game, home and away, except for the Dec. 21 contest at Eastern Washington.
“They’re really going for it,” Walker said.
So is Walker.
“I learned last year to be more flexible,” Walker said. “And now I’m in that mindset, that this is the last time we play a certain team, that this could be the last trip to Portland.”
This year, Walker is leading by example. She’s averaging 8.8 points per game and shooting a team-best 43.3% from long range, which would be a career best if she maintains that pace. She’s also scrapping for loose balls and has 16 assists against just seven turnovers.
There have been disappointments, too. Walker was off the mark on a 3-point shot at the buzzer as the Zags lost to Washington State 51-49 on Dec. 8.
Combined with narrow losses to UC Davis and defending NCAA champion Stanford, the Zags have lost three games by a combined nine points.
Walker is taking a positive approach.
“It was pretty cool to get to play Stanford and seeing how we could do, losing by four and knowing we can compete with teams like that,” Walker said.
“She’s trying to lead our team with everything she has,” coach Lisa Fortier said. “She’s one of those guys who just wants to win as much as anyone I’ve ever coached.”
Just as important in the era of COVID-19, Walker has managed to maintain a positive attitude that helped the team deal with quarantines, game postponements and the other distractions of the past two seasons.
“She never seems to have a down day, and that’s important these days,” Fortier said.
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