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3/21/2008 12:55:00 AM
Walker Breaks Out Of The Shadows
Bill Walker scored 22 points in beating high school teammate O.J. Mayo.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
OMAHA, Neb. -- Kansas State forward Bill Walker admitted that he took note of the socks his old running mate from Huntington, W.V., USC's O.J. Mayo, had been wearing in what will likely be the Trojan guard's final game as a collegian. They had NBA logos on them, which made for some rather overt visual foreshadowing. "They were nice socks," Walker said, but he had a reason for not commenting on them to Mayo while they were on the court. "I was too scared I might have made him mad, and he might have run off some buckets."
Instead, Walker was content to watch Mayo score his average (20 points), but not contribute any clutch late buckets to rescue the sixth-seeded USC from a first-round demise at the hands of the 11th-seeded Wildcats, 80-67. In a game that Walker said everyone in hardscrabble Huntington had been watching, "if they had a TV set," they saw an unexpected storyline develop: While Mayo and K-State's Michael Beasley, who will both be top-10 picks in April's NBA draft, combined for just 12 points at halftime, Walker had exploded for 17.
The stocky forward who had played his prep career in the shadow of Mayo at Cincinnati's North College Hill, and had been playing his redshirt freshman year in the shadow of Beasley's All-America show, had simultaneously stepped out of both on Thursday night. And by doing so, Walker engineered the day's lone victory by a double-digit seed -- a result that could have easily gone the other way had the 'Cats not weathered a few early whistles.
Only four minutes and 15 seconds had elapsed in the game when Beasley was whistled for his second foul, jockeying for position on an offensive rebound. The 26.5-points, 12.4-rebounds-per-game horse that K-State had ridden to the NCAAs was headed to the pine, but, as he said, "Bill stepped up. We needed it. He was our spark tonight."
Walker scored 12 of his 17 first-half points from that moment on, ensuring that the 'Cats did not crumble as they had done so many times earlier this season while Beasley rested. There was a reason, after all, that a team with the likely No. 1 pick in next year's draft -- as well as another first-rounder in Walker -- had finished just 20-11. As talented as K-State is, said Walker, "we haven't produced when Mike goes down." In the biggest stage of their freshman years, Walker, as well as point guard Jacob Pullen (11 points, five assists) and Ron Anderson (10 points, eight boards) produced on Thursday. And first-year coach Frank Martin, who was once viewed as a questionable successor to the one-and-done Bob Huggins, masterfully managed substitutions to keep Beasley on the floor for so many possessions that he still finished with his 27th double-double of the season (23 points, 11 rebounds).
USC, meanwhile, saw its season end with none of Mayo's supporting cast stepping up to save an NCAA tournament game that spiraled out of control late in the first half. Forwards Taj Gibson (10 points, nine rebounds) and Davon Jefferson (15 points, six boards) both fouled out while failing to contain Beasley on the blocks. Point guard Daniel Hackett, who had been the Trojans' guiding force since returning from a back injury in late February, had only two assists against three turnovers. After Mayo scored five early points in the second half, including a steal for a layup -- plus a free-throw -- at the 13:07 mark that gave USC its first advantage since the early minutes, K-State erased that lead for good within 27 seconds.
Now K-State moves on to face a Wisconsin team that boasts the nation's most efficient defense, but does not have a direct answer, athletically, to either Beasley or Walker. Might the 'Cats be the only No. 11 to pull off a first-day upset, and the only double-digit seed to reach the Sweet 16? And will Walker, whom Mayo graciously called "a great player," become one of the breakout stars of this NCAA tournament? All of that is well within the realm of possibility.
As for Mayo, he declined to address inquiries about him turning pro, saying, "I don't think that's necessary right now. I'm really accepting questions only on tonight's game." To find an answer, it was only necessary to look the logos above the tops of his shoes. In the midst of a melancholy USC locker room scene, when asked if the NBA socks were a regular fashion statement, or merely something unveiled for this game, Mayo's serious gaze turned into a sly smile. It was as if he knew exactly what his questioner was getting at.