December 15, 2011
Connecticut's improbable run from unranked in the preseason to national champions in March inspired writer Aaron Torres to do a book on the 2010-11 Huskies. The following is an excerpt from the newly released 'The Unlikeliest Champion,' now available for purchase on Amazon.com or at UConnBook.com. In the excerpt, Torres recalls UConn's senior night loss to Notre Dame, a defeat that at the time had many believing the Huskies' season was over but in reality fueled the team's postseason march.
Before the game, all signs seemed to point toward a storybook ending for the Huskies' veteran players. As is tradition, all the seniors were honored before tip-off, walking hand-in-hand with their parents to center court, to the cheers of the home crowd prior to the final home game of their careers.
But this Senior Day there was a catch. Beyond Donnell Beverly, Charles Okwandu, and manager Jordan Rich, there was another, unexpected, honoree: Kemba Walker. Although he was listed as a junior on the roster, Walker had taken the necessary coursework over the previous summer to graduate from the school after three years and, if he chose, it opened up a path toward entering the NBA Draft a year early. And as a likely high pick, that was exactly what was expected to happen, meaning that the Notre Dame game was very likely the last time Walker would wear a Huskies uniform at home.
The ceremony was elegant and emotional, and, for a while, it seemed like the ending that everyone wanted. It appeared that for one final time, Kemba would be the conquering hero.
Trailing late in the second half, UConn got a huge break when Notre Dame guard (and eventual Big East Player of the Year) Ben Hansbrough fouled out with over eight minutes to go. The fact that he was even in the game with that much time left was a surprising move, but it was the little break the Huskies needed. At the time Notre Dame was ahead 60—52, but without their floor leader, no one expected them to retain the lead.
Behind a raucous crowd at Gampel Pavilion, the Huskies made an epic run thanks almost exclusively to their superstar. With Hansbrough looking on with a towel draped over his head, UConn scored thirteen straight points (with eleven from Walker) to storm back and go ahead. Within minutes that 60—52 deficit had turned into a 65—60 lead, and the Huskies seemed to be headed toward a win.
But the good times wouldn't last.
Much like they had against West Virginia, UConn lost their composure at the worst possible time. The Huskies shot just one for ten from the field in the final four minutes of the game and saw a five point lead swing back to a four-point deficit before a Jamal Coombs-McDaniel bucket eventually stopped the hemorrhaging. Notre Dame still led 69—67, and after a free throw made it a three-point game, the Huskies had one last chance.
With just seconds left, the ball was inbounded to Walker who sensed a swarming defense and quickly threw an errant pass to Beverly. Beverly never got clean possession of the ball, and a final shot never went up. The Huskies had again lost, 70—67, and given the circumstances, this seemed like it might've been the worst loss of all.
"I remember going into the locker room after the game, and it was like a morgue," former Fox Sports and current CBS Sports writer Jeff Goodman said about the post-game atmosphere. "It was pretty clear by that point that Kemba wasn't coming back, this was supposed to be his big going out party, and it just didn't go as planned. Seeing those guys after that game, you thought their season was done right there."
And really, looking at the context of the situation, there was plenty of reason to think that the season was over. The dreams of Maui, Texas and even the early portion of the Big East schedule were gone and replaced with the reality that this UConn team just wasn't that good. They'd lost four of five to close the regular season and, worst of all, had regressed and transformed into everything they'd been expected to be in the preseason. In the Notre Dame loss, Walker scored thirty-four points. The rest of his teammates had combined for thirty-three. UConn was—as had been projected in the fall—a one-man team. Even worse, there seemed to be no time to figure things out.
With the loss, as feared, UConn now had to open the Big East Tournament on Tuesday. It was a proverbial death sentence for a team looking for any kind of positive momentum.
Simply put, time was running out on the 2011 UConn Huskies. They'd need a prayer and a miracle to make it out of New York alive.
And the NCAA Tournament? It was the last thing on anyone's mind.