March 26, 2011
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) - When Kemba Walker charges into the heart of an opponent's defense, Jeremy Lamb watches and waits. The freshman knows defenders will commit to smothering Connecticut's star player, leaving him free to cut to the basket and score.
The skinny swingman with the long arms has been coming up big for the third-seeded Huskies during their run to the West Regional final. He's averaging 18 points in the NCAA tournament while shooting 82 percent from 3-point range and 74 percent from the field.
"I don't think he's overwhelmed by the situation at all," UConn assistant Andre LaFleur said. "He's one of the key guys that has come in and helped give us a new identity."
Lamb's confidence is soaring, too, especially since Walker trusts him in high-pressure situations. In the BIG EAST tournament title game, Walker got him the ball and Lamb scored the go-ahead layup in the waning seconds against Louisville to complete the Huskies' dazzling run of five wins in five days.
In their semifinal win over Syracuse, Walker had defenders hanging on him in overtime when he found an open Lamb, who responded with baskets each time.
"It feels good to know my point guard trusts in me," Lamb said Friday.
Earlier in the season, Walker went to coach Jim Calhoun and kept telling him how "big-time" Lamb was, along with some of the other young players. Calhoun began believing it, too, and they rewarded him by picking up the slack when Walker ran out of gas while playing 37.5 minutes a game.
"It feels good to be able to help him," Lamb said. "He's working hard all through the game getting crazy numbers and sometimes you just need the little help, you need someone to get a bucket here or there."
Don't think fifth-seeded Arizona hasn't noticed Lamb. The Wildcats (30-7) play the Huskies (29-9) Saturday for a trip to the Final Four in Houston.
"He's playing some of his best basketball all season," Arizona guard Kyle Fogg said. "The way he's shooting the ball right now is the reason they've been winning some of these games."
Lamb scored 24 points in UConn's 74-67 victory over second-seeded San Diego State in the regional semifinals. It was the most by a Husky freshman since Khlaid El-Amin had the same in a loss to North Carolina in the final eight of the 1998 tournament.
"With a star player some of the other guys get overlooked. He complements Kemba Walker a lot with his open shots, he drives and he's very important to that team," Arizona forward Jesse Perry said. "He could easily go for 20 for 25 quietly and you wouldn't even know it. He's a big game changer and is one of the key guys we need to stop."
Lamb's growth has come in fits and starts during his first season. In December, he struggled with consistency, especially on defense, and it cost him his spot in the starting lineup.
"The toughest part was when I wasn't hitting the shots and everybody was coming to me and trying to change my shot, 'Shoot it this way, shoot it that way so you can make it," he said.
"I knew I was shooting the right way, I just wasn't hitting. I doubted myself, but I played my way out of that by just staying in the gym, just putting in the extra work."
Lamb eventually came around in mid-January, helped by his teammates' encouragement in between their joking taunts that he couldn't shoot.
He also had a supportive ear back home in Norcross, Ga., where his father runs a business that teaches coaches and athletes how to better themselves as people and role models.
Rolando Lamb hit a last-second shot to give Virginia Commonwealth a 71-70 victory over a Northeastern team coached by Calhoun in a 1984 NCAA tournament second-round game, denying the future UConn coach his first trip to the final 16.
"It was just a great shot. I couldn't believe my dad did it," Lamb said. "We don't talk much about it."
Now, he has a chance to make his own name on college basketball's biggest stage. The low-key Lamb stifled a big yawn while talking with reporters, who suggested he might actually show some emotion if the Huskies win to reach the Final Four.
"Maybe," he said.