UConn's coming-of-age win in West final more than just Kemba tribute
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Shortly after Connecticut's stars were hustled out of the locker room for their podium interviews Saturday night, the rest of the Huskies huddled around a flatscreen at the front of the room. On the screen, a local TV hairdo broke down the most thrilling moment of their lives.
Because local TV adores brevity and abhors nuance, the guy on the screen with the perfect teeth boiled UConn's 65-63 West Regional Final win against Arizona down to two basic elements: Huskies guard Kemba Walker and Wildcats forward Derrick Williams. The anchor's basic premise was this: Connecticut reached the Final Four because Walker played 40 minutes (he actually rested 30 seconds midway through the second half), and Williams played just 26 because of first-half foul trouble. "I maintain," Malibu Ken said, "that if Derrick Williams had played 40 minutes, Arizona would have won the game."
For a moment, the locker room fell silent. Then UConn guard Shabazz Napier shook his fist at the screen. "But he didn't, though!" Napier yelled. His teammates roared.
It may not make for an elegant sound bite, but for the first time in UConn's string of nine consecutive single-elimination tournament wins, Walker's contribution was surpassed by a teammate's. Maybe that's why the Huskies squeaked their way through to Houston. If the one man is good enough, one-man teams can reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. But they can't survive it. UConn will play on because the Huskies have a group of youngsters -- including one very special freshman named Jeremy Lamb -- who can rise when Walker's shots don't fall.
Walker may understand this better than anyone. During a timeout before Williams -- who had just thrown down a two-handed dunk that will fuel the nightmares of Huskies Roscoe Smith and Charles Okwandu for years -- hit a pair of free throws to put the Wildcats up 55-52 with 6:36 remaning, Walker offered some advice to Huskies coach Jim Calhoun. "Kemba says, 'We've got to get the ball to Jeremy,'" Calhoun said.
Lamb, a 6-foot-5, 185-pounder from Norcross, Ga., had scored 12 at the time, but he wasn't the veteran who had dragged UConn through five consecutive Big East tournament wins and three NCAA Tournament victories. He was a freshman who a few minutes earlier had missed a dunk on a fast break he started with a steal, who earlier in the game had come off two screens, caught the ball and ditched it when he should have shot a floater. Lamb had proven himself capable all season, but with apologies to Kentucky's Brandon Knight, Walker is the most cold-blooded assassin left in the tournament. He wanted Lamb to get the ball? According to Calhoun, Walker was adamant. "Let's not run cage," Calhoun remembered Walker saying. "Let's run circle for Jeremy."
Then Walker looked at Lamb. "And you'll make those shots, too," Walker said.
Just as he had in Thursday's win against San Diego State, Lamb delivered Saturday when the Huskies needed him most. On UConn's first two possessions after the timeout, Lamb hit jumpers assisted by Walker. The second gave the Huskies a 56-55 lead. Three minutes later, Lamb extended his go-go-gadget arms into a passing lane to swipe the ball. This time, he didn't miss the dunk. Lamb's two-handed slam capped a 10-0 run and put the Huskies up seven. "It seemed," Arizona guard MoMo Jones said of Lamb, "like he made a big play every minute."
In the stands, former Huskies Jake Voskuhl and Emeka Okafor, respective representatives of UConn's 1999 and 2004 national title teams, watched Lamb and fellow freshmen Napier and Smith with wonder. They had reached the Final Four on veteran-heavy teams. They couldn't believe a group so young would get Calhoun and Walker back to college basketball's biggest stage. "We were up there laughing," Voskuhl said. "They don't realize what they're doing right now. Sometimes, when you're that young, you don't really know how hard it is to get to a Final Four. So many guys play their whole lives and never do it. For them to get there as freshmen, it's reality, but it's not reality."
Later, Voskuhl's words rung true as Lamb tried to explain his perspective on UConn's achievement. "I know this is a huge accomplishment what we're doing right now," Lamb said. "But no, it hasn't sunk in."
The Huskies couldn't do it without Lamb, who has emerged as the player they lean on during the rare moments when Walker seems mortal. "He's being the Robin right now," Napier said. "Kemba's the Batman. He needs a sidekick."
Some players as talented as Lamb wouldn't embrace the Robin role. But Lamb is different. Consider his assessment of his late-game heroics. "I had an OK second half," Lamb said without even a hint of sarcasm.
If Lamb had been slightly less than OK, the Wildcats would be headed to the Final Four. They almost made it anyway. In spite of Lamb's brilliance and a dagger from Walker with 75 seconds remaining, Williams had a good look on a three-pointer to potentially win the game. Then, after the miss, Arizona forward Jamelle Horne had an even better look.
From where he rose for a baseline three, Horne could see Houston. When he released it, it looked good. Later, even the UConn players on the floor at the time would say the shot looked perfect coming out of Horne's hands. But the ball clanged off the rim, Napier grabbed it and the buzzer sounded. Horne squeezed his eyes together, yanked out his mouthguard and ripped it in half. Williams tried to hug his senior teammate, but Horne couldn't be consoled.
After the buzzer, Napier wouldn't let go of the ball until he could find a team manager to ferry it safely to the locker room. Walker and his teammates snipped their pieces of net. As the rest of the Huskies mugged with the region championship trophy and cocked their commemorative hats askew, Lamb pulled his cap down over his eyes and blended into the scenery.
Later, Lamb sat alongside Calhoun, Walker and forward Alex Oriakhi at the postgame press conference. A reporter referenced a UConn assistant's assertion that Lamb doesn't realize he's just a freshman. He then asked if Lamb knew what he was.
"You mean, like... What do you mean?" a puzzled Lamb asked.
"He wants to know," Oriakhi said, "do you have a pulse?"