Wins keep coming as UConn matures
HOUSTON -- This is no longer just about Kemba Walker or Jim Calhoun or an improbable run through the postseason with five Big East tournament victories in five days and then five more NCAA tournament wins.
What we have witnessed here is the maturation of a Connecticut team, the development of freshmen and sophomores who have learned how to win in a variety of ways.
The Huskies didn't pull off a fast-paced, last-possession thriller in the national semifinal Saturday night. Instead, UConn actually pulled a Butler, beating Kentucky with timely rebounds, key defensive stops and late free throws. All of that sets up an intriguing national title game against the Bulldogs on Monday at Reliant Stadium.
Kentucky coach John Calipari told his players throughout the week that if they defended and rebounded the way he wanted, the Huskies would score 56 points and Kentucky would win. The Huskies scored 56 and won 56-55.
So what happened?
"We were 4-for-12 from the foul line is one way," Calipari said. "Second, we were 2-for-12 at the 3-point line [in the first half]."
And the Huskies were the reason for that poor long-distance shooting.
On the surface, Connecticut's stat line won't strike fear in Butler. The Huskies shot 1-of-12 on 3s and committed 15 turnovers. Shabazz Napier went 1-of-7 overall and Walker missed nine shots, including four 3s.
But what isn't on the stat sheet is the outstretched arm of Jeremy Lamb that disrupted the potential winning 3-point shot from Kentucky's DeAndre Liggins, or Napier, all of 6 feet tall, going above everyone to grab the Liggins miss and then converting two free throws for a four-point lead with two seconds remaining. Alex Oriakhi's 10 rebounds are on the stat sheet, but what's not is that nearly all of them came at critical times.
"We really clamped down at times and there were times that we needed stops and we were able to get those stops and did a great job to force them to one shot, get rebounds and push the basketball," Walker said.
"I think we were two and three in terms of being the best defensive teams, so something had to give," Calhoun said of his team and Kentucky. "What gave was offense, although we missed some wide-open 3s and they loaded up on Kemba's side and eventually the game evolved into that."
The Huskies did have 16 assists on their 23 field goals, another example how this team has become whole during the postseason. It's hard to fathom if you watched how erratic the Huskies were in the Big East. They finished 9-9 for a reason -- they couldn't close out some key games, like at home against Marquette and Notre Dame.
There were some poor decisions in those games. For the most part, those same mental lapses aren't occurring during the NCAA tournament.
No one is going to proclaim that the Huskies are one of the best teams from the entire 2010-11 season -- and neither is Butler. But the Huskies, like the Bulldogs, learned how to win when the games mattered most. Just like Butler, the Huskies have made winning plays, enough of them to warrant a national championship game appearance.
Walker didn't have his finest hour. He deferred at times and a lot of that credit goes to Kentucky. But he has fostered along quite a supporting cast: Lamb is improving his skill set almost daily; Napier has the confidence to split the defense; Oriakhi is now more of a counted-on presence on the boards; the Huskies are getting some production from Roscoe Smith's midrange game, and even a workmanlike center in senior Charles Okwandu, doing what he was supposed to do in converting a couple of putbacks for four critical points in 16 minutes.
The Huskies are 40 minutes away from a national championship because this squad is playing its best basketball, winning basketball, in March and early April. Butler is as well. Forget about the No. 3 versus No. 8 seeds in the title game. These are two teams that earned the right to be in the title game because they found ways to win. That's all you can ask at this juncture.
"This is special," Walker said. "We've been through a lot of ups and downs this season, but we all stuck with each other and we're in a great position right now."
A year ago, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski made an assessment of his Blue Devils team that could be applied to this Connecticut squad.
"I've said throughout the year they were good, then they were really good, then they were really good with great character." Krzyzewski said after winning the national title over Butler in Indianapolis last April. "Before coming to the press conference, I told our team that. It's because we always wanted to keep them chasing something. But I told them before we came here and before we said a prayer, 'You are a great team. You are a great team.'"
Don't be surprised if Calhoun has something similar to say if the Huskies beat Butler on Monday.
The Huskies were never a great team during the season. They had a special player, one of the three best in the country throughout the year. But with each game in March and now in April, the Huskies became something much more than Walker. They became a great team that knew how to win.
Win one more and the Huskies can claim a national title, just like the UConn teams of 1999 and 2004. No one needs to compare the talent on the rosters, or how dominant any of the teams were during the season. All that matters is that they found ways to win when the pressure was greatest, the stage the largest and spotlight the brightest.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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