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Good Sport

Bo Schwerin

  Marcedes Walker (Tom Altany photo)


From West Philly to the NCAA—what it takes to win

The high-school senior dribbles the basketball with the same steady rhythm as her heartbeat, backing her opponent toward the basket. She pivots to face the hoop and pumps the ball upward. The opponent leaps, his hand up to swat a shot that never comes. Instead, the high-schooler lets fly a rainbow arc over the defender’s outstretched fingers just as his feet return to the court. The ball passes through the net so smoothly it seems piloted. The boy shakes his head in disbelief as Marcedes Walker hustles back up the court.

Today, Walker is a junior at Pitt and a captain of the women’s basketball team—a team that’s not only collecting victories but also setting records. Her winning ways, though, haven’t always come as easily as her jump shot.

During high school, she was one of the few female hoopsters to practice at the gym in her West Philadelphia neighborhood. She got used to playing against boys—it didn’t matter who tried to defend her. She knew that the basics of a successful game didn’t change. But she didn’t yet know a larger truth: Success on the court usually doesn’t happen without success off it.

Walker’s basketball career nearly derailed in high school when she became ineligible to play because of slipping grades. Watching from the sidelines led to an epiphany: She realized basketball really mattered to her. Freshly motivated, she boosted her grades and led her team in scoring and rebounds the next three seasons, reaching the state championship game in her senior year.

Her play caught the eye of then second-year Pitt coach Agnus Berenato. Walker’s build (6'-3") and agility gave her deceptive speed and a commanding court presence. Under Berenato’s tutelage, Walker and the team soared to unprecedented levels. Affectionately nicknamed “Twinkle Toes” by the coach for her supple quickness, Walker led the Panthers in scoring and rebounding in her first two years, earning numerous Big East Conference honors and an invitation to the U.S.A. Basketball National Team Trials. Now, the District I All-American is the “big sister” on a team that set a Panthers’ benchmark this past season with a 23-8 regular-season record. The team made history this spring, reaching the postseason NCAA Tournament for the first time.

In the meantime, Walker earned a spot on the dean’s list in her pursuit of a criminal justice degree. “Coach Berenato not only worked to build me up as a basketball player, but also as a person and academically,” she says. Like other Pitt athletes, Walker also reaped the benefits of the University’s Willis Center for Academics, which helps students meet the dual demands of elite sports and relentless studies. “I never thought I could go to college,” she says. “I think I’ve done a good job of turning my life around.”

Since her days at the West Philly gym, many other opponents have shaken their heads in disbelief after Walker stood tall and drained a perfect jump shot. But she knows her game is not just about on-court performance, and that’s a lesson she carries with her far from the Petersen hardwood.

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