Kemba Walker might not be a unanimous selection for the Big East Conference first team, but there's no other player coach Jim Calhoun wants to have the ball with the game on the line. Walker proved again on Thursday afternoon just how valuable he is, draining a game-winning 17-footer against top-seeded Pittsburgh as time expired.
The 76-74 victory puts the Huskies in the tournament semifinals and bolsters the argument that the conference double-bye is overrated. UConn used the first two games to find its rhythm while Pittsburgh sat and waited. And when the Panthers finally took the court, they were inconsistent, turnover-prone and at times looked rusty.
But you wouldn't know that to watch the first 10 minutes. The Panthers came out hot, dominated the boards, and their physical style of play seemed to catch the Huskies off guard. Pittsburgh led by as many as 12 points midway through the first half and that's when Calhoun decided to have a heart-to-heart with his team.
"We didn't [match Pittsburgh's toughness] early," Calhoun admitted after the game. "And with about 10 minutes to go, we had a little talk on the sidelines and we decided that we got nothing to lose -- except a basketball game -- but let's not lose our pride and let's play. And these guys did an incredible, incredible job."
And it was on.
Over the final 37 minutes the Huskies outscored the Panthers, 65-51. It's no surprise that Walker was the centerpiece of the comeback; in addition to the game-winner, he ended the afternoon with 24 points, five rebounds and five assists. But as has been the case the last month or so, the freshmen have been just as vital to UConn's success.
Jeremy Lamb, who some people are already comparing to a young Ray Allen, had 17 points (and this is after he scored 19 against DePaul in the first round), and Shabazz Napier added 10 more. Their contributions weren't lost on Walker.
"There were times when I struggled and I couldn't score and [Pitt] was playing me extremely hard and [Lamb and Napier] just stepped up and made big plays for this team."
Then there was sophomore center Alex Oriakhi, who admitted last week that he sometimes disappears during games when he doesn't get involved early. Well, Oriakhi struggled in the first half against Pitt but he didn't fade into the background. Just the opposite, it turns out. He had timely rebounds and critical put-backs to keep UConn close.
"Alex stepped up big time," Calhoun noted before adding, "And the second thing, if you think about it, was [Jamal Coombs-McDaniel's performance]. Not only does he get the rebound [with 18 seconds to go] but he called a timeout to set up the winning play at the end."
Ah, yes, the winning play. Calhoun said that Pittsburgh had been switching on screens all day so, naturally, he got the ball in Walker's hands, had him come off a high screen, and that left Panthers center Gary McGhee to guard one of the country's most explosive players at the top of the key. You know how this movies ends.
"That's why he's the best player, in my opinion, in this league and he's as good as there is in the country," Calhoun said.
Added Walker: "I'm one of the more experienced guys on this team and everybody in the world knew I was going to take that shot. My teammates count on me and I wanted to make the big shot for my team."
That's exactly what happened.
And if UConn continues to get contributions from its young players, and Walker does what Walker does, there's no reason to think that the Huskies can't win the Big East Tournament. Even a week ago, that would have sounded preposterous. But the Huskies have knocked off the No. 1 seed, and more than that, are playing with confidence. Sometimes that's just as important as execution.
Next up: the Huskies will face Syracuse in the conference semifinals on Friday night.