GLENDALE, Ariz -- The night before Saturday's West Regional final, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun told freshman point guard Kemba Walker that he needed to "stop enjoying the trip and go out and play basketball." Translated from coach-speak, Calhoun meant that Walker needed to go from bit player to a headliner.
"I was kind of a no-show in the first game here [against Purdue]," Walker said. "I had only two points and I didn't give it my best effort. Coach told me that I had to get in the game and find my swagger."
Swagger he did, during and after the Huskies 82-75 victory over Missouri, which put them in the Final Four in Detroit next week. Walker scored a team-high 23 points off the bench, with five assists and only two turnovers in 25 minutes, thriving in the breakneck, playground-style of a game like the New Yorker that he is.
"Watching tape the night before, every game we watched of Missouri was just fast, fast," Walker said. "A couple of the assistant coaches told me, 'I believe this is going to be your game.' And they were right. I really did have a good game."
Good going on great. Walker made a difference from the minute he entered the game. He converted his first shot, a short jumper, and on the next possession assisted on a basket by Jeff Adrien that gave Connecticut a 19-10 lead with 13:12 remaining in the first half.
"I told Kemba around the ten-minute mark, '[You're] growing up today,'" said senior guard A.J. Price, who added 18 points and was named the West Regional MVP. "He played like a man among boys. There were times he dominated the game."
One can imagine the frustration felt by the Tigers, who coped with the presence of 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet (five points, zero blocks) and forced Price to miss 11 of 17 shots, only to be bested by Walker. The crushing blow came with 2:11 remaining and Missouri down by only five. As the shot clock neared the end, Walker spun in the lane and banked in a jumper over Zaire Taylor. On one level, it was a shot that had no business going in. On another, it was exactly the kind of prayer a kid from the Bronx would take and expect to make.
"Jeff [Adrien] was there about to set a screen. I told him to get out of my way. I kind of just took over," Walker said. "[Taylor] actually played me kind of well. I was turning and turning and I had to get it up. I just threw it up, God help me, and it went in."
Added Missouri coach Mike Anderson: "He banks that in and you go, whoa, what is taking place?"
That would be the emergence of a talented young player.
Walker was among the nation's top high school point guards a year ago, and he was expected to contribute some this season. His role increased after Jerome Dyson was lost for the season in February because of a knee injury. Over the last month and a half, Walker's game matured and his role increased, although he still provides those youthful moments that drive a coach crazy. In the second half Saturday, he tried to drive between two players and lost the ball, leading Calhoun to scream: "What are you doing?" loud enough to be heard at the cheapest seats at the University of Phoenix Stadium. But Calhoun is willing to endure those ulcer-inducing moments because of the positives that accompany them.
"When they talk about Bronx guards and New York City guards, they are fearless," Calhoun said. "It is their greatest asset 90 percent of the time. It is that 10 percent of the time it becomes lethal for you as his coach. But I like the 90 percent time, because he certainly gave us so much and was just a great player today. There aren't many quicker guards in the United States than him. He was that spark we needed to break their pressure, to try to take them -- we actually did take them out of some pressure."
That may have been the most visible sign of Walker's effectiveness. For stretches, Missouri dropped back into a half-court defense rather than allow Walker to continue dicing up their press.
"They couldn't pressure him," Price said. "He was breaking the press and dribbling through two or three guys and still had enough in him to go down and finish the play off."
Walker likened the game to something at Rucker Park, adding that his whole life he'd been playing up-and-down basketball. He had his biggest game of the regular season against St. John's, scoring 21 in Madison Square Garden in a game that was also fast-paced.
"I've been playing that way my whole life," Walker said.
The Connecticut players did not cut down the nets, bucking tradition. The older players said that had been decided before the game; winning a regional was not their ultimate goal.
"I have no idea why we didn't do it," Walker confessed. "It's okay, though, because I think we have a good chance of cutting down some nets in Detroit."