Ranked in the top 10 and paced by another stellar freshmen class, Kentucky knew it had the potential to be one of the elite teams in the nation.
Until this week, Connecticut wasn’t sure it could say the same.
The upstart Huskies look for a second straight upset of a top-10 team as they face the eighth-ranked Wildcats in the championship game of the Maui Invitational on Wednesday night.
Coming off a challenging 18-16 season, UConn coach Jim Calhoun had plenty of questions with a squad that returned just two starters.
He might have a better idea after the Huskies (4-0) gutted out an 83-79 tournament-opening win over Wichita State on Monday, and followed with a hard-fought 70-67 victory over No. 2 Michigan State in Tuesday’s semifinal.
“We just showed the world we can play,” said UConn guard Kemba Walker, who scored 30 points against the Spartans and hit a key jumper with less than a minute left.
The Huskies, who beat Gonzaga to win the 2005 Maui title, hope to do it again against a young but talented Kentucky squad. The Wildcats (4-0) overcame a 39.1-percent shooting effort to beat No. 13 Washington 74-67 in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
“We’re young. They’re young. It’s the same deal,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We’ve got to figure out how we’ve got to play. It should be fun (Wednesday).”
This is the second straight season these perennial national powers will meet. The fourth-ranked Wildcats beat the No. 14 Huskies 64-61 at Madison Square Garden as part of the SEC/Big East Invitational on Dec. 9.
Walker had 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting in that contest, but the junior guard is much improved. After scoring 18 in a season-opening victory over Stony Brook, Walker has averaged 34.3 points on 33-of-59 shooting in his last three games.
Sophomore Alex Oriakhi had 15 points and 17 rebounds as UConn held the Spartans to 40.4 percent shooting for its third consecutive win over a Top 25 opponent.
“This is an absolute tremendous team win,” Calhoun said.
Oriakhi (12.3 points per game, 12.3 rebounds per game) and freshmen Shabazz Napier, Roscoe Smith and Niels Giffey have played well for a UConn squad that has held opponents to 67.8 points on 40.4-percent shooting through four games.
After freshmen and eventual NBA draft lottery picks John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins led Kentucky to the regional finals of the NCAA tournament last season, a new group of rookies have helped Wildcats get off to a strong start.
Freshmen Brandon Knight (18.8 ppg) had 24 points and Terrence Jones (20.5 ppg, 11.8 rpg) added 16 with 17 rebounds Tuesday to help put Kentucky in position for its second Maui title and first since 1993.
The Wildcats overcame their own poor shooting by holding Washington to 38.5 percent from the field. Jones, who spurned Washington for Kentucky, recorded four blocks for the second straight game.
“We were fortunate to get where we were and sneak out (with a win),” Calipari said after his team went 3 for 17 from 3-point range and had seven assists against 15 turnovers.
Though a magnitude 4.7 earthquake centered on the Big Island was felt during Kentucky’s victory Tuesday, tournament officials said there were no reports of injuries or damage at the Lahaina Civic Center.