Kemba Walker is, and forever will be, this UConn team’s star.
That’s what happens when you throw a talented group of rugrats on your back and carry them to a Maui Invitational title, a Big East tournament title, and, after Saturday night’s 65-63 win over Arizona, a trip to the Final Four. That’s what happens when you have a player-of-the-year kind of season and turn a team that wasn’t supposed to contend in conference play into a national title contender. UConn is 12-0 in tournament play — 3-0 in the Maui, 5-0 in the Big East, and now 4-0 in the NCAAs — and Kemba has averaged 27.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 5.0 assists in those games.
That’s how you become a star. That’s how you become a hero. That’s how you turn yourself into a top-10 pick.
And while Kemba hasn’t exactly disappointed these past two games, it has been Jeremy Lamb — the long-armed Robin to Kemba’s Batman — that put UConn into the Final Four.
Against San Diego State, Kemba had 34 points and took over the game down the stretch. He scored all 12 points in a 12-2 run that turned a 54-53 deficit into a 65-56 lead with just over four minutes left. But San Diego State scored the next eight points, cutting UConn’s lead to just one with 1:39 left.
That’s when Lamb stepped up.
The freshman drilled a 3-pointer to stop the Aztecs’ run and, with just 30 seconds left, made a steal that led to a dunk, giving UConn a 70-64 lead and sealing the win. Lamb finished with 26 points on 9-of-11 shooting.
Against Arizona, Lamb played just as big of a role down the stretch. Kemba was struggling in the second half, as Arizona was running two or three guys at him when he would try to penetrate. The space wasn’t there, so coach Jim Calhoun used him almost as a decoy, running off of screens and setting up Lamb along the baseline. And the youngster responded, finishing with 12 of his 19 points in the second half.
It wasn’t just the points he scored, however. It was when he scored them.
UConn had opened up a 50-41 lead midway through the second half Saturday, but Arizona came back, using a 14-2 run capped by back-to-back emphatic dunks from Derrick Williams and Jesse Perry to take a 55-52 lead.
Lamb responded. He made consecutive baseline jumpers to give UConn the lead again. After Alex Oriakhi and Kemba both scored, it was Lamb who stole a Derrick Williams pass and went the distance for a dunk, capping a 10-0 run that put UConn firmly in control.
This isn’t a surprise. Lamb has always had this kind of talent. He’s a slender (that’s putting it kindly) 6-feet-5 with the wingspan of a 747. He’s a smooth slasher with a charmin-soft floater. He’s terrific at avoiding charges. He’s an excellent shooter in the mid-range, fundamentally sound coming off of screens, and has a 3-point stroke that could develop into something deadly. He’s the second-coming of Rip Hamilton.
Lamb’s issue was assertiveness. He’s passive by nature, and too often early in the season he opted to defer to Kemba or, well, anyone else on the roster. That passivity that disappeared in March, however, as Lamb has been a monster the past nine games, averaging 16.0 points in the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
He has the tools and he’s showing the ability to step up and perform when the lights are brightest. He has star written all over him.
It’s only so long before the NBA notices.
Lamb has a ways to go before he’s able to contribute at the next level. But with his skill set, his physical tools, and his performance in March, all Lamb needs to do is convince one general manager he’s worth a first-round pick.
Whether or not he decides to leave is beside the point.
UConn is headed to the Final Four. Kemba Walker is the reason why.
But the Huskies wouldn’t still be playing if it wasn’t for Jeremy Lamb.