NEW YORK – For the sixth time this season, Kemba Walker hit a shot that won a game for UConn.
Jamal Coombs-McDaniel had dug out the last of Connecticut’s 13 second-half offensive rebounds and called time out. Then, with the clock winding down, Kemba got a ball screen and the Huskies’ all-american had 6-10 Pittsburgh behemoth Gary McGhee guarding him.
The result? A killer crossover on McGhee, who went flying by. Walker then rose up and nailed the shot, sending the Huskies to a 76-74 victory over the No. 3 Panthers, their third win in three days at the Big East tournament.
And if a picture is worth a thousand words, then video is priceless:
“Everybody knows that I’m going to be the one to take that last shot or make the last play,” Kemba told reporters just minutes after being mobbed by his teammates at center court. “So that’s what I had to do for my team.”
“There’s nothing like doing it in your hometown,” the Bronx native said.
And he’s right. I’m sure the moment was just as special for Kemba as it was for his mom, who was standing and dancing in the front row next to the student section wearing her trademark white No. 15 jersey.
But the end result was almost very different.
For the first two months of the season, Kemba Walker was the runaway favorite for national player of the year. He was scoring 30 points a game in wins over top 10 teams in Maui. He was hitting buzzer beating shots to give the Huskies wins over teams like Villanova and Texas. He was putting UConn on his diminutive shoulders and carrying them, all the way to a top five ranking in the country.
But as the season wore on, defenses started focusing on him. The shots that were open early in the season were contested down the stretch of conference play. The game-winning shots he was hitting earlier in the season became turnovers in crucial moments late. As one prominent writer told me yesterday, the amount of good Kemba did early in the season was beginning to be outdone by the bad he was doing down the stretch of games late in the season.
This was Kemba’s sixth game-winning shot of the season. It was his first, however, since the runner he hit to knock off Villanova on January 17th. Since then, his play in the clutch has been more goat than gloat. UConn lost close games to Louisville, West Virginia, Marquette, and Notre Dame, and in all four Kemba failed to make plays down the stretch.
It didn’t exactly look like that was going to change on Thursday afternoon.
After Shabazz Napier got hung up on a screen, leaving Ashton Gibbs wide open in the corner for his sixth three of the game, this game was tied at 74 with 47 seconds left. As everyone in the gym knew, the ball was going to Kemba Walker. But, as Walker had already done three times in the previous three possessions, he missed a tough jump shot with 20 seconds left in the game.
Luckily, Coombs-McDaniel was there to grab the offensive rebound, giving Kemba and UConn another shot at getting the win in regulation.
“It’s special, especially because I missed a couple of shots before that shot and my teammates had the confidence in me,” Kemba said.
“Anybody in the world knew that ball was coming to me. I wouldn’t take that shot and I called it out in the huddle. I wanted to take that shot.”
But he hit the shot that mattered, and he sent the Huskies to the semifinals of the Big East Tournament to play the winner of Syracuse and St. John’s. So credit Walker, who finished with 24 points on 8-22 shooting with five assists and three turnovers, for being able to rise to the occasion on the biggest of stages.
That said, credit must also be given to the other guys on the team. Alex Oriakhi completely dominated the paint in the second half, grabbing offense rebound after offensive rebound and leading the Huskies to 16 second chance points in the second half. He had 11 of his 13 points in the second half, and grabbed four of his five offensive rebounds (he had seven boards total).
“He didn’t start off the game well, didn’t play particularly well,” Jim Calhoun said. “And in the second half he was the guy and he was great in the middle, scored points first for us, rebounded first, got in there, did a great job on defense.”
Jeremy Lamb finished with 17 points and four boards while Shabazz Napier added 10 points and a couple of huge jumpers in the second half. Coombs-McDaniel had just five points and two boards, but he made the biggest play of the game getting the offensive board with 18 seconds left.
So while Kemba is the hero, remember that he would not have been in a position to provide the heroics if it wasn’t for the play of the other four guys on the floor.
And that is why UConn is heading to the semis.