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Efficiency the key to Shatori Walker-Kimbrough's success for No. 5 Maryland

Maryland's Shatori Walker-Kimbrough shoots against Northwestern in the first half, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in College Park.
Maryland's Shatori Walker-Kimbrough shoots against Northwestern in the first half, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in College Park. (Gail Burton / Associated Press)

Two years ago, the most efficient scorer in women's college basketball couldn't dribble, not really. She kept her head down as she moved downcourt, like a hunt-and-peck typist, a guard too unsure to look up and see what lay before her.

A year ago, the most accurate 3-point shooter in women's college basketball couldn't shoot 3-pointers, at least not without often stepping on the line, her footwork turning a good look into the sport's most inefficient shot.

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But now that Maryland junior Shatori Walker-Kimbrough has become, by one metric, the most efficient scorer and, with no close runner-up, the best 3-point shooter in Division I, there are identity crises to reckon with.

She was, after all, a driver in high school, to the point where on-ball defenders would retreat into the restricted area: Better make a nonshooter hit a jumper than allow a slasher to get into the paint. But as Walker-Kimbrough knocked down 3-pointer after 3-pointer earlier this season — "Catch and shoot," she recalled, "catch and shoot" — memories of who she had been seemed far removed. Walker-Kimbrough said Thursday that she "forgot" she could and should drive, too. Her favorite players in the NBA are LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Jimmy Butler, not Stephen Curry.

What had she become, besides way better?

"I didn't want to be a player that takes 50 shots and makes two of them," Walker-Kimbrough said. "I feel like that takes away from everybody in the offense. … I was just big on efficiency."

The No. 5 Terps' showdown Monday night at No. 7 Ohio State (18-4, 10-1 Big Ten Conference) likely will hinge on the output of Buckeyes sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell, maybe the nation's most electrifying guard. But no player's game is quite as big on efficiency as Walker-Kimbrough's. Of the nation's 50 top scorers entering this past weekend, her effective field-goal percentage — which accounts for the relative value of 3-pointers — was unmatched.

Mitchell (56.5 percent), the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, has hit 74 3-pointers this season, second most in the league. Connecticut's Breanna Stewart (64.3 percent), the two-time Naismith College Player of the Year, makes nearly three of every five field-goal attempts. Still, both fall short of Walker-Kimbrough (65.3 percent), her nation-best efficiency bolstered by 58.5 percent long-distance shooting. From 3-point range, No. 2 in Division I isn't even close: 47.2 percent.

"I think what's so remarkable about her is she's a perfectionist, and even her freshman year, I didn't think it was realistic, and then you watch her," coach Brenda Frese said of Walker-Kimbrough, the leading scorer (19.5 points per game) for Maryland (21-2, 10-1). "She's leading the country in 3-point field-goal percentage."

That she might not even be the Terps' most reliable option serves to explain the team's sterling offensive profile (85.9 points per game, No. 3 nationally) and her own good looks.

Junior center Brionna Jones (Aberdeen) is second nationally in field-goal accuracy at 66.1 percent. Senior center and fellow starter Malina Howard is up to 66 percent shooting in conference play. How much attention can be paid to Walker-Kimbrough when the players screening for her are just as sure a thing?

Twenty-three games in, the question seems more rhetorical than practical.

"I think that's what's so special: Within a game to game, it can go from being an inside game to an outside game back to an inside game, because they have to shut down something," Howard said. "They can't shut down everything with our team at once."

Ask the team's preseason 3-point specialist what in Walker-Kimbrough's stroke needed fixing, and she'll say: not much. Walker-Kimbrough shot 39.7 and 34 percent from long range in her first two years, respectively, but she "always had a really fluid shot, a lot of fun to watch," sophomore guard Kristen Confroy said.

Spatial awareness was sometimes her downfall. Walker-Kimbrough hit 18 3-pointers last season; she now believes she could have had double that amount with a smaller pair of Under Armours.

"Half those 2s that I made were probably long" 2-pointers, she said. "I'm just like, 'Really, is my foot really on the line?' It's like, literally, my big toe. If I wore a size 9.5, I'd probably be good."

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It was during the summer when she became great. Playing for Team USA in the Pan American Games, where the competition was tougher and the 3-point arc was more than a foot farther out, Walker-Kimbrough started the final three games for the silver-medalist Americans and averaged more than 10 points per game.

In practice this season, she has better moderated her exercise — Walker-Kimbrough has been, on occasion, urged not to come in and work out on days off — and more effectively simulated the shots she later makes look effortless. In her favorite drill, "Wizards 100," Walker-Kimbrough fires off 10 3-pointers from six spots, then another 40 on the move.

"More game-like so that when the game comes," she explained, "it's like nothing."

Never was Walker-Kimbrough's awesome efficiency more evident than in the Terps' past two wins. She made just one 3-pointer in a victory at Purdue, but scored a career-high 41 points on 21 shots, one short of Marissa Coleman's program scoring record.

On Friday night, against visiting No. 17 Michigan State, Walker-Kimbrough already had 18 points on seven attempts when she lined up a long-range look early in the third quarter of an eventual win. The shot was good. Her positioning, again, was not: foot on the line, two points.

A couple of minutes later, she hit a 3-pointer from nearly the same spot. Minutes after that, Confroy, who hit eight 3-pointers in a January win over Northwestern, passed on a pretty open look to feed a wide-open Walker-Kimbrough. She held her follow-through as her 48th 3-pointer of the season splashed through the net.

"They say that shooters are going to have good games, they're going to have bad games and there are some in the middle," Confroy said. "It seems like Shatori just keeps having some good games."

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