Kemba Walker did it again.
And threw himself back onto the top of the heap for National Player of the Year.
Walker scored 24 points and added six boards and five assists as UConn knocked off Villanova 61-59 at Gampel Pavilion on Monday afternoon, but his numbers aren’t going to be what people are talking about. Once again, Walker hit a last-second shot to lift the Huskies to a win. This time, after Kemba missed two free throws and fouled Corey Fisher, which allowed the Wildcats to tie the game with less than 30 seconds left, he split a double team and finished a tough floater in the lane with 2.5 seconds left. A prayer by Fisher was off the mark, and UConn escaped with their fourth straight win.
The shot is surely to add to “the Legend of the Kemba”, but the key to Monday’s win was UConn’s role players. Alex Oriakhi slumped early in the season, but his play of late has been terrific. He has double-doubles in three of his last four games, finishing with 14 points and 12 boards tonight. He’s also added some nice post moves to his repertoire, including a lefty jump-hook he showed off twice.
Jeremy Lamb was also superb in this one, especially down the stretch. He scored nine of his 14 points in the second half, knocking down a couple of big jump shots and making a number of key hustle plays, corralling rebounds in traffic and jumping passing lanes.
When Oriakhi is playing like he did tonight and one of Lamb, Shabazz Napier, and Roscoe Smith plays well, UConn is a tough team to beat. They play excellent perimeter defense and have a couple of shot blocking presences around the rim. The Huskies are good enough at that end of the floor that they don’t need to score a ton of points to win.
All they need is some help for Kemba, and they have been getting it.
The way I see it — and the way I saw it after Jimmer Fredette went for 47 points on Tuesday — is that this season will ultimately turn into a two-horse race for National Player of the Year. Jimmer’s numbers are better right now, but I think right now the award has to go to Kemba.
Its not just the clutch plays. Its not just the numbers. If we were going off of numbers alone, Kemba would be losing ground with his performance the last few weeks. He’s a volume shooter. He has to be for UConn to win, but that doesn’t change the fact that his efficiency and percentages are dropping. He was 6-18 from the floor against Villanova. That is about the same as the numbers be put up against Pitt, Notre Dame, and Texas.
But what doesn’t show up in the stat sheet is how much the guys on this team feed off of Kemba’s confidence. He doesn’t just make his teammates better by giving them the ball in a good position on the floor, he gives them confidence simply by being on the floor with them.
As well as guys like Oriakhi, Lamb, Napier, and Smith have been playing, UConn without Kemba wouldn’t be a tournament team. They might barely be an NIT team.
As great as his on-court performance has been, his effect on this group of young players has been greater.
That’s why he is the National Player of the Year. As of today.
Your move, Jimmer.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.