'Maui in Manhattan' (Edited)
"'Maui in Manhattan,'" he said after Friday night's overtime win over Syracuse. "We're all having fun. It feels like Maui again."
Minus a few degrees on the thermometer, it certainly must. At the Maui Invitational back just before Thanksgiving, the Huskies won three games in three days to cop the title. They beat some good teams, too: Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky.
Now, UConn has one-upped that performance with four wins in four days at the Big East tournament. OK, DePaul stinks, but Georgetown, Pittsburgh and now the 'Cuse are all NCAA tourney teams.
So what is it about this team in game-a-day, tournament play? Heck if they know.
"I don't know," Kemba Walker shrugged. "I guess you could say, the bright lights are on, it's our time to shine. Everybody said we couldn't do this, and we're shocking the world."
"I don't know what's going on right now," Alex Oriakhi added, "but we're all just playing together. We all were unhappy with the way we played in the past, losing four out of five. But we're not looking back. Everybody's playing together and helping Kemba out."
There's no reason for the Huskies to stop and think why they play so well in this type of format, but here's my theory: they have a great player in Walker, who can (and has) put the team on his back while it gains momentum through a tournament, builds confidence with each win and gets other players to start believing in themselves.
Look no further than Tyler Olander tonight. Just about every player on UConn's roster has had a highlight game somewhere along the line this season: Jamal Coombs-McDaniel has had a few, Niels Giffey, Charles Okwandu, even Donnell Beverly. Not Olander ... until Friday night.
He scored seven points (matching his season-high), grabbed six rebounds and doled out a pair of assists in 27 minutes of action. He was aggressive, taking nine shots and really crashing the boards, and even managed to commit only one two fouls (a frequent bugaboo of his).
"This feels great, just because we've all been working hard all year, we've all had our struggles," Olander said. "To come into this game (and contribute), it's crazy."
The Mansfield resident admits he doubted himself at times this season when the minutes weren't there and, when they were, the production wasn't.
"A little bit, because at the beginning I struggled a lot, things weren't going right, I was missing easy shots. For this game to (come) on this night, it's pretty special."
His teammates were happy for him, too.
"I was so happy for him," said Oriakhi. "I know how he felt, not playing sometimes, not even playing good sometimes. I told him I know exactly what you're going through. But I told him, you never know when your number's called, and he performed tonight."
Added Walker: "I was extremely happy. He was confident, he came in, hit a big jump shot. He showed poise out there. It's good to see him gain some confidence, because he's a really good player and he doesn't know it."
*** Oh yeah, Walker: 33 points, 12 rebounds (!), six steals, five assists. He'll be the tourney MVP, even if UConn loses Saturday night. He's the national player of the year in my book, as I stated yesterday. What more can you say at this point?
*** A pair of apparent goaltending calls against both teams weren't called, essentially nullifying each other. Jamal Coombs-McDaniel appeared to swipe a Syracuse shot right off the rim with under three minutes left in regulation. It certainly appeared to be basket inteference.
"You think?" Jim Boeheim asked, rhetorically, afterwards.
"What do you think?" Boeheim was asked.
"Nothing. No comment."
WIth less than a minute left in OT, however, it appeared Jeremy Lamb's shot was goaltended by Syracuse's C.J. Fair. Again, no call.