April 2, 2011
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) - After winning nine postseason tournament games in a thrilling 19-day stretch, Jim Calhoun's tireless Huskies are preparing for the Final Four in Houston. Scoring sensation Kemba Walker and his teammates punched their tickets by winning the West regional Saturday with a 65-63 victory over Arizona.
"I don't know where it stands in NCAA postseason play, but it's got to stand somewhere, these nine games," Calhoun said. "I've never seen a team do what these kids have done."
When Calhoun watched his Huskies celebrating in an arena packed with Arizona fans, he became even more grateful for the resilience and poise of an inexperienced team that hasn't been beaten down by late-season stumbles.
Walker has been the key, taking on leadership of the Huskies ever since he hosted a preseason fried-chicken dinner for all of his teammates.
And even after the Huskies' brutal schedule the past three weeks, Walker didn't want a breather. After all, UCONN's 6-foot-1 star got all of 30 seconds on the bench during the win over Arizona that propelled him back to the Final Four for the second time in his three-year career.
"I'm good, really," Walker said Saturday, his brand-new championship T-shirt sticking to his skin. "This is what we love to do. We play basketball every day. It doesn't tire us out. It's just exciting."
Walker has averaged 26.3 points and 5.3 assists during this nine-game run and become the biggest college basketball star of March. Calhoun calls him the player of the year.
As the Huskies celebrated on the Honda Center floor, it was almost tough to remember those long-ago days - way back in the late 1990s - when UConn was known for winning just about everything except big tournament games. The Huskies were perennial contenders but didn't reach their first Final Four until their championship season of 1999.
There's another way this season is different: Calhoun's first three Final Four teams were packed with stars - Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin with the 1999 champions, Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon for the 2004 champs, and Hasheem Thabeet and A.J. Price two years ago.
This team has three freshmen in its starting lineup. The Huskies started the season well, winning the Maui Invitational in an early indication of their tournament prowess, but went 9-9 in the unforgiving BIG EAST, very much resembling a team that would need a year or two to find its collective stride.
"Once we figured out what we needed to do, and how we needed to play, it's been great," said forward Alex Oriakhi, who provided unsung defense on San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard and Arizona's Derrick Williams in consecutive games. "This is definitely a dream come true. When you commit to UConn, that's exactly what you play for."
UConn's previous three Final Four teams also came out the West regional, a quirk attributed by Calhoun to increased focus on the far side of the continent. There's not much chance of avoiding distractions in Houston, where the college basketball world converges for games so big they have to be held in football stadiums.
Walker remembers his trip to the 2009 Final Four as a wide-eyed freshman. He plans to give the Huskies their best chance to survive the experience.
"The Final Four is a great experience, but it's a lot," Walker said. "There's a lot that we're going to have to do before the game. I'm going to have to tell these guys to make sure whenever they can get rest, make sure they get rest, because it's a lot going on."
Calhoun doesn't argue when this surge is described as the most surprising achievement of his quarter-century at UConn.
"The sweat equity that we all have put into UCONN basketball over the past 25 years is pretty deep and rich, and to have people over a couple-of-month period dismiss us, I took that personally," Calhoun said. "If I take something personally, I'm going to do everything humanly possible to make sure that your perception is wrong. These kids allowed that to happen."