UConn sprints to the finish
ANAHEIM, Calif. – In a game of runs, Connecticut sprinted through the finish line.
In a game of stars, the Huskies shined brighter.
A stunning late-season surge has put Jim Calhoun back in the Final Four, delivered there by a thrilling 65-63 victory over Arizona in the West Regional final Saturday at the Honda Center.
The win keeps UConn’s improbable streak of nine consecutive victories alive. A team that regularly plays five freshmen and lost four of its final five regular-season games, in the process finishing ninth in the Big East, has become the definition of March momentum. It all started by winning the conference tournament earlier this month.
“These brothers, these young guys have given me a thrill beyond compare,” said Calhoun, who now has taken four teams to the Final Four. “Our march over the past nine games, I haven’t experienced anything like this.
“The ninth-place team in the ‘Big Least’ is in the Final Four. I don’t know what that tells you.”
This game was billed as a matchup between two of the NCAA tournament’s greatest talents – the Huskies’ Kemba Walker and the Wildcats’ Derrick Williams. Both had their moments of grandeur and of struggle. In the end, Walker did a little more, executed a little better and got a big boost from freshman guard Jeremy Lamb to push UConn (30-9) over the top.
Walker finished with 20 points, including 12 in the first half as the Huskies built a seven-point edge. He misfired for a while from the field, at one point missing 5-of-6 3-point attempts. But he came up with a huge steal late and hit the shot that proved to be the difference, a jumper to give the Huskies a 65-60 lead with 1:13 left.
“It’s a special feeling, but I didn’t do it by myself,’ said Walker, who also had seven assists and four rebounds. “Everybody came in, worked extremely hard, and we did a great job of having great chemistry as a team. It’s paying off for us.”
The player with the formula to finish off Arizona (30-8) was Lamb. He continued his own incredible maturation this month, striking for 19 points, knocking down two 3-pointers and collecting two steals. He scored six key points over the final 6:21, taking turns with Walker as the offensive catalyst.
“He was big-time today,” Walker said of Lamb. “He did everything perfect. He scored the basketball. He made big stops. He grew up today.”
Lamb was asked if he knew where he was, the stage he was on. He paused, confused by the question, then said, “I haven’t thought about it sinking in yet. I just like to go out there and play. I don’t think about where we are playing and how big the stage is. Right now, I’m just having fun playing basketball.”
Arizona, which trailed by as many as nine points, never stopped battling until the final buzzer. Jamelle Horne hit a 3-pointer with 1:02 left to make it a two-point game. Horne then rebounded a Shabazz Napier miss, and the Wildcats called timeout with 26 seconds left.
They got the ball to their alpha, Williams, who hoisted a “3” from outside the key. It caromed off the rim, was rebounded and kicked out to Horne on the wing. His trey also was off the mark. Time expired and UConn’s players rushed the court, part in celebration, part in pent-up relief.
“It was scary,” Walker said of the frenetic final seconds. “Derrick, he was great the whole second half. His shot went long and somebody tapped it out, and then Jamelle found himself open. When it went up, I said, ‘Game time.’ I thought it was going in, honestly.”
Walker was better than Williams in the first half and at the end. Williams came to life in the second half after being saddled with three quick fouls and playing just seven minutes in the opening half. He finished with 20 points and five rebounds. A highlight-reel dunk invigorated a partisan Wildcats crowd as Arizona went on a 13-2 run that gave it a 55-52 lead with 6:36 remaining.
But Williams missed that final 3-pointer. It might have been the last shot of his college career. The NBA beckons for the sophomore who, along with Walker, became the most recognizable face of the tournament.
“Everybody wants to take some plays that they did wrong back, especially me,” Williams said. “If you’re going to leave me open, I’m going to shoot it. Most of the time, I’m going to make it. Things just didn’t fall at the end of the game.”
Things just keep falling the right way for UConn as the Huskies prepare to meet the East Regional winner in the Final Four next Saturday.
A roller-coaster season that included wins over Kentucky, Texas and Michigan State early as well as the Big East crown also had its embarrassments. That included Calhoun being suspended by the NCAA for the first three Big East games of next season for failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance in the recruitment of former Huskies swingman Nate Miles.
Somehow, some way, a year after missing the tournament entirely, Calhoun and UConn are back, two wins from a national championship. Unlikely as the ride may have been, Calhoun will drive this bus all the way to Houston.
“I’m a good underdog,” Calhoun said. “Probably comes from my background and some other things in my lifetime. But I don’t mind a challenge.
“A good friend of mine once said, ‘I don’t mind fighting you in an open space, but I hate to put you in a corner.’ I felt like I was in the corner because of the sweat equity that we all have … put into UConn basketball over the past 25 years. It’s pretty deep and rich. To have people over a couple-of-months period dismiss it, I took that personally.
“If I take something personally, I’m going to do everything humanly possible to make sure that your perception is wrong. These kids have allowed that to happen.”