Monday, January 17, 2011

Walking the Walk(er)

Here's how Jay Wright summed up Monday's exciting game, a 61-59 UConn victory.

"Great game to be a part of. Great atmosphere. It was a great Big East basketball game. We just came up on the short side of it."

Juuuuust the way Jim Calhoun would have described it if it had been Corey Fisher, not Kemba Walker, hitting the game-winning shot with 2.5 seconds left, right?

Ummmmm ... no.

But Calhoun -- who to this day hasn't publicly acknowledged the classic nature of UCoonn's six-overtime loss to Syracuse two seasons ago -- was gracious in victory. Wright said Calhoun (or it might have been George Blaney) said to him after the game: "We both suck."

"We were very fortunate to win the basketball game," Calhoun said. "We also had Kemba Walker to win the game for us."

Ah yes, Kemba Walker. With all due respect to Jimmer Fredette and Jared Sullinger, Walker is starting to pull away as the national player of the year frontrunner. Forget all the 30-point games, etc., it was his ability to overcome a somewhat subpar (by his standards) game to still net the game-winner.

Walker shot just 6-for-18 and stunningly missed two key free throws with 31.3 seconds left that allowed Fisher to come down and hit a pair of freebies with 22 ticks left to tie the game. He also was whistled for a key traveling call with 2:08 remaining, and -- you guessed it -- Fisher responded with a reverse layup to tie the game.

(Walker scored UConn's final seven points of the game; Fisher scored Villanova's final 11).

But was there any doubt a.) who would get the ball with the clock ticking down for the game-winning shot and b.) whether Walker would make the shot?

Not in most observers' minds.

"When I saw it go up, I had a feeling it was going to go in," freshman guard Shabazz Napier said, "because he's Kemba Walker."

"We wanted to run some time down so we get the last shot," Walker said. "I got it, and I knew another guy was going to come. I just tried to go before he came and I was able to get my arm in and get a shot up."

Added Napier: "He's a veteran. He's been through these battles before … he did it against Texas. You've got to give him the ball. Everyone has a bad shooting night, but when the game's on the line, we all know who to give it to."

***While Walker was again the hero, Jeremy Lamb was a key understudy. The freshman had by far his biggest game in a UConn uniform with 14 points, eight rebounds and a host of big plays. Lamb had a steal and layup off a give-and-go with Walker with 6:35 left to get UConn to within a point.

"I knew he was coming up to screen, and he tried to fade it so I was able to get in the passing lane. I gave it to Kemba so he could make a play, and he realized he could get it back to me, so I just wanted to finish it. That was a key play of the game."

Lamb's dribble-drive scoop shot with 3:57 left gave the Huskies a 52-48 lead.

"That was a big-time play," Wright said. "(Maurice) Sutton was right there, and he shot it right over him."

"I noticed there was a mismatch. They were overplaying Kemba, and Shabazz was able to get the ball to me, and I was able to score."

Lamb also made a nifty alley-oop pass to Alex Oriakhi for a layup with 3:12 left.

"The crowd was great today," Lamb said. "I had energy, and I just took what they gave me and was able to knock down some shots."

Walker was asked if this was somewhat of a coming-out party for Lamb.

"You could say that. I always knew what he was capable of doing it for us. It's about time he did it, and he did it at the right time. We needed a boost from somebody, and he gave it to us."

And, as usual, so did Kemba Walker.

***Oriakhi finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds and Charles Okwandu grabbed seven boards. Walker nabbed six rebounds and doled out five assists.

"Kemba's great, they use him great," said Wright. "He doesn't just score, he makes people around him better, he draws fouls. He's just so difficult to guard."

Napier didn't do much (two points and one assist -- though that assist was a spectacular one, a no-look beauty to Jamal Coombs-McDaniel for a reverse layup that got UConn to within a point (36-35) with 13:52 left.

Fisher (10-for-22 shooting) was the only Wildcat in double figures. Corey Stokes, Villanova's leading scorer at 16.5 per game, was held without a field goal and to just three points with Roscoe Smith guarding him most of the contest.

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