When Kemba Walker ruled college basketball—and took over The District

Ben Standig
NBC Sports Washington

When Kemba Walker ruled college basketballand took over The District originally appeared on nbcsportswashington.com

Kemba Walker arrived in town for the 2011 NCAA Tournament the baddest man in all of college basketball. Days prior the nation's leading scorer led the Connecticut Huskies to an improbable Big East Tournament title by winning five games in five days. Chewing up the competition in the Big Apple turned the junior guard into a nationwide sensation.

Then Bucknell ticked him off.

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Ahead of the first-round meeting in Washington, Bison guard Bryan Cohen introduced himself to America during a Fox Sports television interview. "My assignment is Kemba Walker," the junior guard said, "and you're witnessing the man that's going to stop him Thursday night."

Oh, Bryan.

The Huskies already felt "unstoppable" entering the NCAA Tournament, Walker told NBC Sports Washington. Then they heard about Bucknell's brash take.

"It was personal too," Walker told NBC Sports Washington. "They were talking a little trash before the game. One of their guys was saying he was the Kemba Walker stopper. I think me and my teammates took that personal."

On March 17, 2011, Connecticut throttled Bucknell 81-52 inside the building then named Verizon Center.

"We killed them," Jeremy Lamb, Walker's teammate with Connecticut and Charlotte, told NBC Sports Washington. "It was disgusting."

Walker, now an NBA All-Star with the Charlotte Hornets, also recalled several ESPN analysts buying into Bucknell chatter by picking against the Huskies. Based on the regular season, there was plenty of reason to dismiss Connecticut.

Eventual champions often look overpowering throughout the season. Zion Williamson-led Duke arrives in Chinatown this week for the East Regional as the No. 1 ranked team in the country. In 2011, UConn ended the regular season 21-12 and in a  three-way tie for ninth in the Big East.

"We were growing as the season moved along," Lamb said. "We just didn't realize it."

The five days in New York changed everything. Those inside Capital One Arena for Connecticut's next two games witnessed the continued evolution.

Former Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen, who now leads George Mason, recalled the game plan for his inexperienced roster.

"We never had a chance," Paulsen told NBC Sports Washington. "[Kemba] was just phenomenal. We tried trapping him on ball screens, and he just passed."

Walker finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and a career-high 12 assists.

"We were locked in. We were super duper confident, yeah," Walker told NBC Sports Washington. "We were ready to go especially after winning the Big East Tournament."

They weren't done.

Two days later Walker dropped 33 points on Cincinnati, hitting five 3-pointers and all 14 of his free throw attempts, as the Huskies advanced to the round of 16 with a 69-58 win.

Two weeks later Connecticut capped the historic run with a 53-41 win over Butler for arguably the most inevitable-feeling title for a non-one seed in NCAA Tournament history.

The 11-game winning streak that began in New York passed through Washington and ended in Houston turned the Huskies into one of the most memorable national champions ever.

Walker and Lamb found themselves under the same Capital One Arena this month when the Hornets played the Washington Wizards. The great memories bubble up with each visit.

"I have a pretty good relationship with some of the ushers and that's because it started here," Walker said. "It's always great vibes when I come back here."

NBA thinkers like Hornets head coach James Borrego, then an assistant with New Orleans, already had a solid read on the 6-foot-3 point guard from New York City.

"Just willing his team, making big shot after big shot," Borrego said. "That's what defined him and gave him immediate respect in the NBA."

One member of Borrego's coaching staff experienced the Huskies' ride head-on.

Because of the NCAA Tournament's pod setup where different regions play in the same city for the first week, Butler, finalists in 2010 and 2011, also began its ride to the championship game in Washington. Connecticut played in D.C. as the third seed in the West Region. Butler entered as the Southeast region's eighth seed.

Ronald Nored, now a Charlotte assistant, was a backup guard for the Bulldogs. He jumped on the Kemba bandwagon during the Big East Tournament. Weeks later, he and his teammates got run over by the unstoppable force.

"[Kemba] was unbelievable," Nored recalled. "You're just excited about their run… and then you end up playing them."

Walker, selected as the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, had 16 points and nine rebounds in one of the most offensively challenged title games in NCAA history. Connecticut celebrated the championship with full-throated jubilation regardless.

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Occasionally the two former Huskies remind Nored of the result especially when the calendar hits March.

"Jeremy gives me more grief than Kemba does," Nored said, "but there are times when Kemba says what he needs to say, and there's nothing I can say back either."

Eight years later, Lamb and Walker recalled the classic run with wonderment.

"It's the way we did it," Walker said. "Nobody thought we were going to win in the Big East. … Five games in five days. They're too tired. No way they're going to win. We win. That's probably one of the greatest runs ever. When you talk college basketball, there's no way you can't talk about that run."

Lamb said UConn was "immune to pressure" despite only having one upperclassman, Walker, among the team's top-six scorers.

"We were all young. We needed a leader, somebody to lean," Lamb said. "That's what [Kemba] was, someone we could lean on."

Walker serves that leadership role this season for the playoff-pushing Hornets. He and Lamb are having another magical March. Charlotte's current four-game winning streak includes a game-winning 48-foot heave from Lamb and Walker scoring 38 points for an overtime win over San Antonio.

Selected a 2019 NBA All-Star starter, more accolades may be coming for Walker, who is in contention for All-NBA honors along with Wizards guard Bradley Beal.

Though he appreciates the respect, Walker doesn't crave the attention, then or now.

"I'm low-key. I like my privacy. I just like to be in the cut," the now 28-year-old Walker said.

Yes, Walker, the ninth overall selection in the 2011 NBA Draft,  is aware he blew his cover with that 11-game streak including two wins in Washington.

"Yeah, that definitely put me on the map," a smiling Walker said. "It helped me get drafted where I got drafted. That was an unbelievable moment for me."

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