Thursday, March 24, 2011
Anaheim, Calif. The legend of Kemba Walker is growing bigger with each postseason feat for the Connecticut Huskies, who are on the brink of another trip to the Final Four.
Walker scored 22 of his 36 points in another dynamic second-half performance, relentlessly driving UConn down the stretch in a 74-67 victory over San Diego State in the West regional semifinals Thursday night.
Freshman Jeremy Lamb added 24 points and hit a clutch 3-pointer with 1:43 left for the third-seeded Huskies (29-9), who won five games in five days to capture the Big East tournament and now are going to an NCAA regional final for the 10th time.
Walker, the fearless playmaker from the Bronx generously listed at 6-foot-1, scored 12 consecutive points for the Huskies down the stretch.
UConn advanced to Saturday's regional final against the winner of top-seeded Duke's meeting with Arizona later at Honda Center.
With four 3-pointers and a little veteran savvy to draw a run-stopping technical foul against San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin in the second half, Walker outdueled Aztecs point guard D.J. Gay, who scored 16 points and trimmed UConn's second-half lead to 65-64 on a 3-pointer with 2:53 to play.
Lamb replied with his 3, and his emphatic last-second dunk set off a celebration in the section of thoroughly outnumbered UConn fans at Honda Center, just 90 minutes up the interstate from San Diego.
Gay scored 16 points for the second-seeded Aztecs (34-3), who couldn't quite catch up to the Huskies down the stretch. Kawhi Leonard had 12 points and nine rebounds but never dominated inside, while Billy White added 14 points and Malcolm Thomas had 13 points and eight rebounds.
Walker scored 14 points in the first half to stake UConn to a 36-27 lead during a 19-5 run, but the Aztecs replied with an 11-2 surge early in the second half. Thousands of San Diego State fans who sold out every home game on campus this season turned the Honda Center into Montezuma Mesa North, singing along to their favorite pep-band songs and thoroughly drowning out the UConn cross-country travelers.
Walker's layup put UConn up 40-32 early in the second half, but the Aztecs finally remembered they're bigger and taller than the Huskies, repeatedly using their advantages to set up open shots while keeping Walker's teammates from getting comfortable.
Gay's free throws put the Aztecs ahead 43-42 with 13 minutes left, and back-to-back buckets put San Diego State up 53-49 with 9:19 to play — but Walker even managed to turn that to the Huskies' advantage.
After Franklin made a steal and fed White for a layup, Franklin and Walker exchanged a little trash talk. On the way back to their benches moments later, Franklin and Walker bumped shoulders — and Walker went crashing to the floor, drawing a technical foul and hitting both free throws.
Except for two regular-season meetings with BYU, the Aztecs were perfect throughout the winningest season in school history. San Diego State obliterated the school record for victories and won the Mountain West tournament before knocking off Northern Colorado and Temple for its first two NCAA tournament victories.
But UConn's road was rockier, with a 9-9 regular-season mark in the Big East. With three freshmen in their starting lineup, most expected the Huskies to need another year before contending for big prizes.
UConn has been streaking ever since its regular season ended with four losses in five games. After Walker drove them to the Big East tournament title in dramatic fashion, and the Huskies knocked off Bucknell and Cincinnati in the first two rounds behind Walker, who already has obliterated the single-season school scoring record.
The West Coast vibe suits the Huskies, who also came out of this region during their runs to the 1999 and 2004 national titles, along with their trip to the 2009 Final Four.