Wednesday March 9th, 2011

NEW YORK -- Each time Kemba Walker stepped to the free-throw line during the first half of Wednesday's Big East tournament game against Georgetown, a pocket of red-clad St. John's students behind the basket greeted him with the taunt "Hardy's better." With all due respect to Red Storm star Dwight Hardy -- no, he's not.

While Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough bested both for Big East player of the year honors, Walker remains the conference's most electrifying performer, as he reminded everyone on several occasions during the Huskies' 79-62 rout of reeling Georgetown. The Hoyas, playing their third straight game without starting guard Chris Wright, never stood a chance.

In a momentum-changing sequence late in the first half, Walker stuffed Hoyas star Austin Freeman as he went up for a jump shot, raced back down the floor, made a layup and drew the foul. Early in the second half he sliced through seemingly the entire Hoyas defense en route to an acrobatic put-in. At one point he broke out a left-handed scoop shot, and he repeatedly drained his dagger short-range jumper.

Walker scored 28 points on 10-of-18 shots before leaving the court in the final minutes to a rousing Garden ovation from all but that one pocket of Johnnies -- whom he woofed at affectionately following the aforementioned block-turned-layup, even without proper context.

"I thought they were saying 'Cory,' " he said afterward. "I was like, 'Who's Cory?' "

The diminutive 6-foot-1, 172-pound junior not only possesses the Big East's widest array of juke moves, but also carries a bigger burden than any other player who will take the Madison Square Garden floor this week. He averages more than 23 points per game on a team with no other scorer who averages double-digits. He's carried his team to its 23-9 record and near season-long Top 25 ranking, and now he's trying to carry his team to postseason glory.

It's possible because he's done much the same before. He led the Huskies to a Maui Invitational title early this season, including wins over Michigan State and Kentucky, with three straight nights of at least 29 points. He went to Austin and drained a game-winning jumper to beat then-No. 8 Texas. He's scored 26 and 28 in his first two games here. He's proved every bit the type of difference-maker who, when his shot is falling, can carry an otherwise pedestrian team a great distance in March.

"When you have [No.] 15 on your team," Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said, "you're usually in pretty good shape."

But Connecticut didn't come in to this week's tourney in the best of shape. It had lost four of its last five regular-season games -- including a heartbreaking 70-67 home loss to Notre Dame last Saturday in which Walker scored 34 -- to finish just 9-9 in the Big East, landing it the No. 9 seed here. Two wins have set them up for a quarterfinal meeting Thursday against top seed Pittsburgh. It's hard to imagine the Huskies winning five games in five days, but an upset Thursday could help their NCAA seeding immensely. (And it's worth noting that the No. 1 seed has lost in the quarterfinals here three of the past six years.)

But the Panthers (27-4) were also the first to expose UConn's limitations way back on Dec. 27, hammering the then-10-0 Huskies 78-63 despite 31 points from Walker. His supporting cast sputtered often throughout conference season. So far this week, however, Calhoun has gotten much-needed sparks off the bench from guards Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (who's scored a combined 23 points) and Shabazz Napier (18). Forward Roscoe Smith's defense helped hold Hoyas star Freeman (who badly misses injured comrade Wright) to 7-of-20 shooting.

"It isn't like I've forgotten about [Pitt]," Calhoun said of the teams' now-distant first meeting. "... I would hope after these two wins, coming in, that we have a little momentum going in, ad we know what we're facing."

Calhoun is clearly hoping the fresh start offered by this week's event will help the Huskies build more of that momentum heading into the Dance.

"I've been involved in enough situations where, if a team catches something -- I don't know if they caught it, but from our body language, I thought we were looser offensively in a good way, and I thought we dug in most of the game defensively," he said. "I liked the way we felt. We know we have the toughest opponent in the league coming up tomorrow, but that's what you play for."

Walker, a Bronx native, is clearly enjoying his return to New York. Before Tuesday he'd yet to enjoy a Big East tournament win, but prior to this season he wasn't a likely first team All-America, either. He's the type of big-game performer who thrives in a tournament setting, just as he did in Maui when he first made his national breakthrough.

"At this point we're playing some great basketball," Walker said. "That's all you can ask for in postseason play. It's the teams that get hot. ... It's a new season. That's the way we look at it. Right now we're a different team."

They're a team that endured a whole bunch of growing pains over the course of an 18-game conference season. They showed early on they can play with some of the nation's best, and they'll get another chance to prove it Thursday.

What happens from there will have a whole lot to do with Kemba.

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