HOUSTON — When it’s win or go home, nobody’s better than Kemba and the kids.
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Kemba Walker scored 18 points Saturday night to lift Connecticut to its 10th straight victory since finishing off a .500 Big East regular season, a 56-55 win over cold-shooting Kentucky that moved the Huskies a victory away from their third, and most improbable, NCAA title.
Walker, a quick-handed junior from the Bronx, added seven assists and six rebounds to help the young UConn team (31-9) extend a winning streak that started with a five-wins-in-five-nights leg-drainer at the conference tournament and now includes five more at the tournament that really counts.
The third-seeded Huskies – lowest seed left in a tournament that has been as unpredictable as any in history – will face No. 8 Butler, a 70-62 winner over 11th-seeded VCU in the first semifinal, on Monday.
“We’ve got a heck of a challenge on Monday night, but the fact that we’re playing Monday night, that’s beautiful,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said.
This one was not pretty on either end.
Fourth-seeded Kentucky (29-9) shot 33.9 percent for the game and went 5:39 without a point late in the second half. UConn wasn’t much better, but Walker, Alex Oriakhi and Shabazz Napier all made baskets to turn a 48-48 tie into a 54-48 lead with 2:29 left.
DeAndre Liggins made a 3-pointer for the Wildcats to cut the deficit to three, and Kentucky had its chances. But Brandon Knight, one of John Calipari’s three sensational freshmen, barely drew iron on a 3-pointer. After Kentucky got the rebound, Liggins drew a foul but only hit one of two free throws.
Kentucky forced one more turnover and went for the win, but this time, it was Liggins whose 3-pointer was short. Napier made two free throws to make it 56-52, then Knight ended the game with a 3-pointer at the buzzer – a meaningless make and a cruel close to what has otherwise been a remarkable season for Calipari and Co. – Kentucky’s first trip to the Final Four since winning it all in 1998.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Walker said. “It’s a little surreal right now, but hopefully we can bring it back to Storrs.”
Speaking of amazing, UConn is peaking at the right time. The Huskies, a freshman-filled team that lived down to expectations by going 9-9 in their conference, haven’t lost since they fell to Notre Dame to close the regular season on Feb. 5.
UConn wasn’t nearly as dominating here in Houston as in its 84-67 victory over Kentucky in November at the Maui Invitational. But a win’s a win, and nobody does it better than UConn when it’s all-or-nothing. Counting that relatively low-key get-together on the island, the Huskies are 13-0 in tournament games this season.
Little was expected from Calhoun’s team this year, in part because it is filled with underclassmen, including starters Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith, Tyler Orlander and Jeremy Lamb.
Walker, a junior, is the sparkplug, though. Kentucky did a decent job containing him with its zone, which forced the Huskies to be more patient and look for second options. Lamb was the most obvious one. The freshman, whose father Ronaldo made a game-winning shot to knock Calhoun out of the tournament when he was coaching at Northeastern in 1984, had 12 points, including a fancy scooping layup with 2:29 left to put the Huskies ahead by six.
From there, it was a hectic, hard-fought finish that included few baskets and even fewer breaks. The teams played nearly five straight minutes without a whistle, and the 4-minute media timeout didn’t come until there were about 90 seconds left. The quick pace might have had something to do with Kentucky coming up short on some of those key shots late. There wasn’t much of an explanation, though, for the 9-for-32 shooting in the first half. The Wildcats trailed 31-21 at the break, their lowest first-half output of the season.
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Knight finished 6 for 23 with 17 points, Lamb had 13 on 5-for-10 shooting. But the Wildcats made only 21 field goals, only nine from 3-point range and shot 4 for 12 from the free-throw line.
“I just think we missed a bunch of open shots,” Kentucky senior Josh Harrellson said. “We had good looks, and we just weren’t knocking anything down. … We just couldn’t make anything.”
Calipari barely lost a coaching matchup against Calhoun – a showdown between a couple of coaches who haven’t hid their dislike for each other, dating to the day when Calipari was at UMass and moving in on Calhoun’s turf.
“We had our chance to win the game, and as a coach, that’s all you can ask of these young people,” Calipari said. “Give us a chance, and we had an opportunity.”
While Calhoun has become a fixture at UConn – in his fourth Final Four – Calipari has moved around. This year, he joined Rick Pitino as only the second coach to take three different programs to the sport’s biggest stage.
He said he’d prefer talent over experience any day. His ability to bring this group of freshmen this far was remarkable, given that this was considered something of a rebuilding year for the Wildcats, who lost John Wall and four others to the NBA draft after last season.
Calhoun could tell the same story. He wasn’t expected to do much this year, and was depending mainly on his star, Walker, to shoulder the load. It worked early in the season, but teams figured out how to contain him in the Big East – as grueling a conference as there is.
Walker has been electric in leading the Huskies this far in the tournament, though, averaging 26 points a game on the road to the Final Four.