Kemba Walker serves title-winning dish
HOUSTON -- They gathered every weekend in Kemba Walker's apartment, chilling out in their captain's space to play video games, watch television, air grievances. Anything they wanted to do, anything they needed to say, they could do or say there.
At the end, Walker would serve his Connecticut teammates dinner, a home-cooked meal prepared by his own All-American hands.
And so to the litany of Kemba Walker's talents, we now can add chef. The player whose combination of will and skill hijacked college basketball's postseason apparently can mix up a mean batch of tacos and macaroni and cheese.
"Oh, he can cook," Charles Okwandu said. "He can really cook."
It's not just in the kitchen, though, that Walker can concoct something delicious. He can cook up a mean basketball team, too.
Connecticut won its third national championship, beating Butler 53-41 in a slugfest that offered few shining moments for the postgame video.
The Huskies won not because Walker stole the show. The junior had the offensive yips just like everyone else on the court, hitting five of his 19 shots from the floor and none from the 3-point line.
No, UConn won because along with carving out his own spot in basketball history, Walker empowered his team to carve their own identities. Ten players got into the box score for Connecticut, and in a game in which points and progress were charted on the Mendoza Line, all 10 were needed.
"Right now it feels pretty good," Jeremy Lamb said. "People said we were young. People said we were a one-man team. Kemba didn't have any help, no post players, anything like that. But as the season went on, we just kept working, kept working. We ended up being a pretty good overall team."
The fact that the team that was picked to finish 10th in the Big East now becomes only the seventh school in NCAA history to win three titles makes perfect sense for what has been a confounding and confusing basketball season. Critics will argue that the best team didn't win this national championship but who, frankly, has been better than UConn in this postseason?
Since flaming out in their senior night game against Notre Dame, the Huskies have won 11 games in 27 nights, steamrolling like a boulder running downhill from New York's Big East tournament to Houston's final stop.
"I sensed something different with this team after the DePaul game," Alex Oriakhi said, referring to the Huskies' first win in the Big East tournament. "We got a lot of confidence, and I think we just went with it from there."
The Huskies needed every bit of their chutzpah against Butler. Certainly nothing else was plentiful for either team. This game had folks scouring the record books of ineptitude, looking for how many marks of inefficiency were broken.
My teammates just encouraged me, saying, 'We need you.'” -- UConn's Jeremy Lamb
The answer? Quite a few.
Connecticut's 53 points were the fewest by a winning team since 1949; the Huskies' 1-of-11 3-point effort tied Duke for the worst in a national title game, and Butler's dismal 18.8 percent shooting for the game was the worst by any team in an NCAA tournament game since Harvard in 1946.
"Yeah, you'd like a few more baskets made, certainly," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "But it was two teams that weren't going to give into each other, and finally our superiority took over. But damn, I loved it in the sense of the fight, the competitiveness between the two teams."
If you're a Butler fan today, you write this one off as "not your night." But if you watched the game, you realize the reason the Bulldogs had a bad night is because the Huskies made them miserable.
Connecticut's post players, so often overshadowed by the talent of the team's guards, won this game for the Huskies. If Oriakhi, Okwandu and Roscoe Smith weren't blocking shots (together they had nine of the Huskies' 10 swats), they were altering them. And on the rare occasion when the Bulldogs had an easy layup, they were so stunned by the open window or fearful of the defense, they missed.
Matt Howard, as tough and fearless a player as any in the country, shot a woeful 1-of-13, and his fellow inside teammate, Andrew Smith was just 2-of-9 as Butler rolled together perhaps the most incomprehensible stat in NCAA tournament history: The Bulldogs converted only three 2-point field goals in the entire game.
In the actual paint, the Bulldogs were an absurdly awful 1-of-25.
"We watched tapes last night and we knew they were a very good offensive rebounding team. That's how they get a lot of their points," Okwandu said. "We wanted to push them outside, force them to only take 3s."
The plan worked like a charm. At the break, Butler had scored 15 of its 22 points from the arc.
Connecticut's first-half offense wasn't much better. Thanks to a buzzer-beating Shelvin Mack 3-pointer, Butler toted a 22-19 lead into the locker room, ending an anemic offensive half that included the fewest combined points scored in an NCAA game since 1945.
But to start the second half, the Huskies got moving. Or at least what counted for moving here -- maybe more of a prop plane get up and go as opposed to a jet. UConn went on an 18-6 run to build a seven-point cushion that may as well have been 70 points.
Butler never recovered.
Most telling in that splurge: Walker scored only three of those points. Instead it was Lamb -- who has emerged in this postseason as the Robin to Walker's Batman -- doing the work. Scoreless in the first half, the freshman was responsible for 11 of those critical 18 points, earning grins and high-fives from Walker after he and Shabazz Napier connected on an alley-oop that made it 37-28.
"My teammates just encouraged me, saying, 'We need you,'" Lamb said. "Coach got into me. Right out of the half they ran a couple of plays for me. I was able to get to the foul line. All I wanted to see was the ball go into the net. After I saw it go in a couple of times, I got my confidence back and was able to knock down some shots."
And in this game, "some" was all it took when the other team hovered in the neighborhood of "none."
After Howard missed yet another layup, Lamb pulled down the rebound and dribbled out the clock. When the buzzer sounded, Walker walked over to stand in front of the Connecticut fans, flexed his muscles and screamed before the confetti fell from the ceiling.
"I wasn't nervous at all, not one bit," Walker's mother, Andrea, said. "Why? Because we have Kemba Walker, that's why. And they don't."
True; in the end, this was about Walker. He stood front and center on the podium, clutching the championship trophy, while fans alternated between chanting his name and begging him to stay in school one more season.
He deserved every bit of the attention. Walker will go down as one of the game's brightest postseason stars, a player who delivered daggers with a smile.
His greatest achievement, though, isn't the 271 postseason points he scored or the 381 minutes (out of a possible 445) he logged. It's the reboot he gave to a program that had lost its swagger amid a dismal and difficult season a year ago.
Walker, who rode the highs of a Final Four appearance in his freshman year to the lows of an NIT flameout as a sophomore, watched firsthand as things unraveled last season. With a roster stuffed with freshmen and only two seniors, Walker knew it was on him to glue this team together.
"Last year's team didn't have any chemistry," he said. "You can't win if you don't have it, so I wanted to make sure from the very beginning we took care of that."
They built it the only way you can build chemistry: by spending time together. No one was watching while they gathered in Walker's apartment, yet it was while their multi-skilled captain conjured up dinner that the essence of this Connecticut team took root.
"Yeah, I can cook," Walker said. "I'm a pretty good cook."
Kemba Walker just combined all of the ingredients to make a champion.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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