Commentary

Walker's run mirrors McNamara magic

UConn star looks to cap surge with Big East title, just like Syracuse guard did in '06

Updated: March 12, 2011, 12:56 PM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- At the stroke of 5 p.m. on Friday, when the security guards finally allowed the first eager handful of journalists to ascend the escalators from the press room to the arena level, there was a single player on the Madison Square Garden floor:

Kemba Walker.

Despite the fact he had played three games in three days -- and 112 of a possible 120 minutes -- Walker was getting some extra shots in, being fed passes by assistant coach Kevin Ollie.

Two hours later, Walker took the court with his Connecticut teammates. And for the fourth straight day, playing in his hometown, Walker put the Huskies on his back and propelled them to a victory.

Walker's stat line in the 76-71 overtime win by No. 9 seed UConn over No. 4 seed Syracuse was ridiculously good: 33 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and six steals, without spending a single second of game action on the bench.

[+] EnlargeKemba Walker
Tony Spinelli/ESPN.comKemba Walker baffled Syracuse with his 33 points, 12 rebounds, six steals and five assists.

"It's one of the great performances, certainly of a player of mine," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "I've never seen a guard dominate a game -- I'm talking about inside and out -- as Kemba has."

The 6-foot-1 junior from the Bronx connected on fallaway jumpers, nifty scoop shots in the lane, and 13 of his 14 free throws. In the process, he shattered the Big East tournament scoring record. In fact, Walker's 111 are the second-most points in any Division I conference tournament in the past 15 years.

And he still has Saturday night's championship game versus No. 3 seed Louisville to play.

After the game, Walker would not reveal how fatigued he feels as he faces the prospect of playing a fifth contest in five days.

"It's tough, but we're ready for the challenge," Walker said. "We're mentally tough, and we're just gonna stay together."

Walker's week calls to mind the performance of another diminutive guard who took this tournament and this metropolis by storm five years ago: Gerry McNamara of Syracuse.

In the course of four days in March 2006, McNamara put on a show that instantly became the stuff of Big East and Big Apple legend. His Syracuse team -- the No. 9 seed, just like this year's UConn squad -- had to win four games in four days to win the Big East title. In fact, they needed a deep run in the Big East tourney just to earn an NCAA tournament bid.

And McNamara turned it into his own personal highlight reel. In the first game, he hit a running one-handed 3-pointer with a half-second left to beat Cincinnati by a single point. Next, McNamara had 17 points and 13 assists -- including a 30-foot trey to send the game into OT -- in a win over UConn. The third time around, he drained five second-half 3-pointers as the Orange came back from 15 down at intermission to defeat Georgetown.

He finished it off with 14 points and six assists in a championship game victory over Pittsburgh.

It just so happens that McNamara is now a graduate assistant for the Orange, working for his old coach, Jim Boeheim.

"I could have never imagined the way that week played out," McNamara said about 90 minutes before tipoff on Friday night, taking a break from helping the current Syracuse players warm up. "But it certainly was one of the most memorable four days of my life."

McNamara watched a good chunk of UConn's thrilling win over top-seeded Pitt on Thursday (Walker hit a game-winner at the buzzer) from the first row right behind the team benches. And he had a front-row seat for the 45-minute instant classic by Walker on Friday.

"A lot of people are fast, but his ability to change directions is probably among the elite in the country," McNamara said of Walker. "The way he changes directions and changes speeds is really as good as I've seen."

[+] EnlargeGerry McNamara
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesGerry McNamara cut down the net after Syracuse ran the table in the 2006 Big East tourney.

McNamara was asked if he sees any of himself in Walker.

"His will to win," McNamara said. "He's intense, and he's intense every play of the game. ... I admire how hard he plays, and I admire his will to win. And any time you have a player that's talented but [also] wants to win more than anybody on the court, it's a great combination."

Funny enough, Calhoun said almost the exact same thing about Walker to a group of reporters after the game.

"I think what wears [opponents] down is, you can't get him to slow up. He's gonna try to outwill you," Calhoun said. "We talk a lot about that with our team. If you're really good you can outwill another team.

"Kemba is probably the personification of that. ... You know what? If I could have every player find what he finds, then we wouldn't even be talking about us not being the Big East champion or winning the national title. It's the greatest gift a player can have."

When asked after Friday night's game if he remembered watching McNamara and Syracuse's magical run in 2006 -- Walker was a sophomore at Rice High School in Manhattan at the time -- Walker smiled and said he did. When asked to compare his own four-day run to that one, Walker demurred. "I don't know -- we just winning. That's really all it is," Walker said. "I don't try to compare my play to other guys. I'm just playing basketball and trying to win games for my teammates. That's really it."

When prodded further, Walker laughed and said, "Yeah, it was impressive. We tryin' to make a run, too."

That 2006 season did not end well for Gerry McNamara and Syracuse. With G-Mac injured (he played that Big East tourney with a stress fracture in his leg) and the team worn out by all the games in New York, the fifth-seeded Orange were upset by No. 12 seed Texas A&M in the first round of the Big Dance.

But McNamara said Friday that he wouldn't trade those four days in New York. He said people bring it up to him constantly.

"Every year when I get to come to the Big East tournament now, it's a whole different animal," McNamara said. "Just to be a part of the history and to play in this [tournament] was a great experience. But to be a part of the bigger picture -- to have had one of those great performances among all the great ones here -- it's just a great feeling."

He never made it past the preseason in the NBA. And who knows what kind of career Walker will have at the next level.

But Gerry McNamara will always be a part of Big East and Madison Square Garden lore.

And whatever happens on Saturday night and the rest of March, Kemba Walker will be, too.

Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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