Well, I guess we can all hop back on that UConn bandwagon.
Saturday afternoon, the Huskies went into Austin, TX, and knocked off the Longhorns 82-81 in overtime. But this win wasn’t like the wins over Kentucky and Michigan State.
Kemba Walker didn’t dominate. He had 22 points on 8-27 shooting. He over-penetrated, he dribbled into traffic, and he forced too many tough, challenged jumpers. In other words, he did everything we all figured he was going to have to do once opponents started to key on him defensively.
But something funny happened today.
UConn’s supporting cast stepped up.
Walker was just 2-10 in the first half. He only had five points at the break and didn’t score until there was 2:32 left in the half. And despite their star’s struggles, the Huskies only found themselves down 37-32 at the break. Alex Oriakhi and Donnell Beverly both had six points. Charles Okwandu had five. Roscoe Smith had four.
UConn was still hanging around, down 48-41 with 15 minutes left in the game, when they went on a 27-11 run over a ten minute stretch to take a 68-59 lead. Shabazz Napier had three threes in that run. Roscoe Smith scored seven points in that stretch. Walker? He only had five.
In fact, for most of regulation, it was the UConn supporting cast that carried the Huskies.
Napier hit a number of tough shots late in the second half and finished with 16 points. Alex Oriakhi, who has been in Jim Calhoun’s doghouse lately, played arguably his best game in a UConn uniform, finishing with 11 points, 21 rebounds (a ridiculous 10 on the offensive end), and two blocks. Smith had 13 points and six boards. Even Beverly go into the act, finishing with eight points and three assists without turning the ball over.
But Walker is the difference. There is a reason that he is the leading scorer in the country and on the short list for national player of the year.
After UConn had taken the 68-59 lead, Texas responded, and responded in a big way. J’Covan Brown capped a 12-2 run with a short jumper that game the ‘Horns a 71-70 with less than two minutes left. Walker responded, finishing a ridiculous reverse layup and drawing the foul.
Texas would eventually tie the game and send it to overtime. In the extra frame, Walker scored the last seven UConn points, including a 40 foot prayer that beat the shot clock and give the Huskies an 80-77 lead. After back-to-back hoops for Texas, Kemba found himself isolated, as usual, at the top of the key against Dogus Balbay, one of the best on the ball defenders in the country. After crossing over and stepping beck, Walker hit a 15-footer over Balbay’s outstretched arm.
Cory Joseph missed a jumper at the other end, and UConn escaped with the win.
More importantly, however, UConn legitimized (legitimated?) their top ten ranking. This team now not only has beaten Kentucky, Michigan State, and Wichita State out in the Maui Invitational, but now they can add a win over Texas — arguably the second best team in the Big XII and the No. 12 team in the country — on the road.
UConn’s supporting cast has been questioned all season long, and rightfully so.
One game is not enough to answer those questions.
But it should be enough to quiet the doubters for a while.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.