Top Dogs: Kemba leads Huskies to memorable Big East title

By: Kels Dayton

Connecticut fans are sometimes spoiled.

But you can’t blame them.

Many of them are Yankees fans. The rest are Red Sox fans. (Scientists have theorized that Mets fans also exist in the state, but there isn’t enough hard evidence to fully support this claim yet .)

All of them just witnessed the women’s basketball team win 90 consecutive games.

And they’ve all also been through a magical two-plus decade run with Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, who single-handedly willed the men’s basketball program from Yankee Conference also-ran to national powerhouse in the blink of an eye.

UConn fans had come to expect success. They loathed losing more than they enjoyed victory. They grunted and moaned when the Huskies failed to live up to expectations. They even began to wonder whether Calhoun had lost his touch.

Not anymore.

Kemba Walker was magnificent all week, leading the Huskies to their first Big East title since 2004. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin)

Not after this magnificent season, which culminated with a five-night run of validation that cemented the Huskies as a tournament contender and their star point guard as perhaps the most valuable player in the nation.

The Huskies are back, and the rest of the nation had better take notice.

Kemba Walker scored 19 points, and Connecticut defeated Louisville, 69-66 Saturday night, to win the school’s seventh Big East championship, tying it with Georgetown for the most all-time.

Surely no one in Connecticut, and not many basketball observers across the nation, saw this coming. UConn had lost four of five coming into Madison Square Garden, and Kemba Walker had lost his grip on the Big East Player of the Year award. (It went to Notre Dame’s Ben Hansbrough.)

He was shooting poorly, the Huskies were turning the ball over, and the team had botched several late-game situations.

Connecticut fans began to emit their signature moaning. It was all over; the Huskies were too young; Walker was too inconsistent, Calhoun was too demanding for this team to win big this year.

And then the team stepped into the Garden, and everything changed.

Walker had not only broken out of his slump, he had become the league’s clear-cut best player again; dashing, darting, and step-back-J’ing the Huskies to victory.

Jeremy Lamb had become the proverbial Pippen to Walker’s Jordan, hitting key baskets when the Huskies needed them, defending multiple positions, and snatching up rebounds with his Spiderman-like arms.

Alex Oriakhi became a force inside, putting up 15 points and 11 rebounds in UConn’s 76-71 overtime win over Syracuse in the semifinals. Rosoe Smith, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, and Shabazz Napier all contributed mightily, going from incapable youngsters to crafty Big East veterans (with a few exceptions) virtually overnight.

The Huskies were at their best when the lights were brightest. And that’s something that can often be said about a Jim Calhoun-coached team. Back Calhoun into a corner, and he’s coming at you like a cab driver who’s been waiting too long at a New York City traffic light.

UConn wasn’t even ranked in the preseason Top 25. Some college basketball preview magazines didn’t even list them as a projected NCAA Tournament team.

Five months later, the Huskies own a 26-9 record, a Big East championship, and could very well land a number 2 seed in the Big Dance when the brackets come out on Sunday.

Calhoun called Walker, “as special a player as anyone I’ve ever coached,” after UConn’s victory over Louisville Saturday night. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Calhoun has done all of this despite NCAA violations, talk of retirement, and a team full of kids who aren’t quite old enough to remember President Clinton.

Funny, because it was Clinton who asked Kemba Walker for a picture after the former president witnessed the Huskies vanquish Syracuse on Friday night.

Walker’s teammates must’ve been asking him, “Hey, who was that old white guy with the big nose you were taking pictures with?”

What a special run it has been for UConn. And what a teriffic player they’ve found in Walker, whom Calhoun praised after the game Saturday by saying:

“He is as special a player as anyone I’ve ever coached. No one’s going to surpass him. They may equal him, but no  one is going to surpass him…Five games in five days, he’s amazing.”

Kemba may not have won the Big East Player of the Year award, but after his week at the world’s most famous arena, he’s put himself back into prime position to garner a ton of votes for National Player of the Year. (Take that, Hansbrough.)

Walker was simply unstoppable at the Garden, displaying Matrix reaction-like quickness, a Jill Scott-smooth jumper, and Issac Newton-IQ on the basketball floor.

He did it all, averaging 26.0 points, 6.4 assists, and 2.8 steals in 38 minutes per game  in carrying UConn to a Big East championship.

Walker’s 130 points in the tournament are the most for any player in any conference tournament in the past 25 years.

His ninth-seeded Huskies became the first team to win five consecutive games in a single Big East tournament, and did so by knocking off the number 3, 11, 13, and 22nd ranked teams in the country.

“1990 was special,” said Calhoun, reminiscing about the first time the Huskies had ever won the Big East tournament title, “but this one is right there with it. It’s been a fight the last six years to win a game in this tournament, but to win this one this time is so, so special. I’m so proud of them.”

So is the rest of Connecticut.


Related Stories:

In conference realignment craziness, a plea UConn won’t join the fray

Kemba and the Miracles: UConn will play for national title

UConn wins remarkable national title, but gigantic stadium ruined the game


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