Relentless Walker energizes UConn in 74-67 win over upstart Aztecs
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Connecticut guard Donnell Beverly saw his roommate bouncing around this past Sunday and wondered if fatigue would find Kemba Walker. After all, Walker had just carried the Huskies to seven postseason wins in 11 days. Did he
Thursday, Walker's wish made sense. When a player is this hot, he never wants to leave the court.
Walker's Huskies were supposed to struggle this season because of their overwhelming youth. They were supposed to be quick outs in the Big East Tournament (because of their No. 9 seed) and the NCAA tournament (because they had won five games in five days to win the Big East tournament). They were supposed to be home by now. But thanks to Walker and a big assist from freshman Jeremy Lamb on Thursday night, they're still playing.
Walker scored 36 and Lamb scored 24 to lead the Huskies to a 74-67 win against second-seeded San Diego State. Since the Huskies opened the Big East tourney against DePaul on March 8, Walker hasn't scored fewer than 18 points, falling below 20 only twice. When games have been close, he has dominated them.
Teammate Alex Oriakhi hasn't noticed a particular moment when Walker tends to take over games -- other than the tip-off. "He takes over every game," Oriakhi said.
On Thursday, Walker started slow. He missed his first four shots. He needed to feel out the Aztecs, who smothered opponents with their defense this season. San Diego State's length was troubling, as was Billy White, the cat-quick 6-foot-8 forward who opened the game guarding Walker. So Walker drove the lane a few times to test the Aztecs ... and the referees. When he realized simply drawing contact wouldn't bring a whistle, Walker backed off for a moment.
But just because Walker didn't attack on every offensive possession, it didn't mean he rested. Early in the first half, he dove on a loose ball in the frontcourt. Before he slid too far and got called for a travel, Walker tossed the ball through a defender's legs to a stunned Oriakhi, whose missed layup cost him a certain
Walker didn't flip the switch to Domination Mode until five minutes remained in the first half. With UConn nursing a two-point lead, Walker set up Roscoe Smith for an open three-pointer. Then, he made two consecutive three-pointers. Next, he swiped the ball from the Aztecs to start a two-on-one break with Shabazz Napier. Walker showed defender James Rahon the ball, and Rahon hedged toward Napier in anticipation of a pass. Then, as if the ball was a yo-yo, Walker ripped it back and blasted to the basket for a layup that gave UConn a 32-27 lead. The Huskies would stretch that lead to 36-27, and things would have been worse for the Aztecs had Walker not barely missed a 30-foot bank shot at the buzzer.
Walker opened the second half hot, but the Aztecs wouldn't fold. Star forward Kawhi Leonard struggled, but guard D.J. Gay led San Diego State back. Gay's free throws with 13:05 remaining gave the Aztecs a 43-42 lead, and the teams traded leads for the next few minutes. A White layup gave San Diego State a 53-49 lead when Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun called a timeout with 9:18 remaining.
At that moment, as the teams left the floor and went to their benches, Walker had a moment that probably will not add to his legend. Since there can be no objective description of this exchange by a single person, we'll let Walker and San Diego State freshman Jamaal Franklin describe what happened next.
Walker's version: "He ran into me. And that was it."
Franklin's version: "We were just walking regular. I guess I brushed his shoulders a little bit. We were just walking and brushed shoulders and he flopped a little bit. He fell. I didn't think it was going to be a tech because we were just bumping. ... I was just trying to get to the bench."
When they saw Walker fall, UConn players rushed to his aid. Though Walker was standing and smiling by the time the cavalry arrived, words were exchanged between the teams. No referee blew his whistle. During the timeout, officials reviewed the video and called a technical foul on Franklin. Walker sank two free throws as the pro-San Diego State crowd rained boos on the officials.
Connecticut grabbed the lead on a Walker layup within two minutes and never gave it back, but to blame San Diego State's loss on the call wouldn't be quite correct. (It should be noted that Aztecs coach Steve Fisher also didn't blame the call.) The Aztecs fought back and had a chance to take the lead with less than three minutes remaining, but Leonard missed an open three. Later, Chase Tapley forgot the Aztecs only had five team fouls and allowed the Huskies a new shot clock when he fouled thinking he would send Walker to the line.
Walker had carried the Huskies to that point, but it was time for a new generation to rise. Lamb, already having the game of his life, drilled a three-pointer to give the Huskies a four-point lead. Then he stunned even his teammates when he stretched about 12 feet in the air to pluck a San Diego State lob from the sky and start a fast break. Napier, ever the courteous teammate, tossed the ball to Lamb to reward the steal with an easy dunk on the other end.
In the locker room, Walker tired of talking about himself, but he lit up when someone mentioned Lamb. "He was big-time," Walker said. "Did you see that steal he got? Did you see his arms?"
Still, Lamb gave much of the credit for his career game to Walker. With good reason. Walker creates opportunities because opponents must throw so much at him -- usually in vain.
"It didn't matter who was guarding him," Fisher said.
"He's just an amazing player," White said. "Our goal was to try to contain him. He's almost impossible to stop."
So for at least one more game, Walker will continue to astound.
"He makes plays, and I just shake my head," Oriakhi said. "I ask him how does he do that. He just says it's God-given ability. He couldn't explain what he does. It's really amazing what he does. He's truly something special."