- Kieran Darcy, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- About 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, surrounded by reporters in the middle of the Madison Square Garden floor as he and his teammates were preparing to cut down the nets, Kemba Walker finally admitted it:
"Oh yeah, I was tired," the UConn guard said, smiling. "I can tell you now, I was tired. But my teammates stepped up for me."
He's right. They did. Particularly on the most critical play of Saturday night's Big East tournament championship game against Louisville.
The Huskies had the ball, trailing the Cardinals 64-63 with 45.9 seconds remaining. Let's let Walker describe what happened:
"Peyton Siva was playing great D on me, but he slipped up, and I was able to get by him," Walker said. "I drew the big man up, and Jeremy [Lamb] was smart enough to cut, and I was able to get him the ball. And he made the big basket for us."
Lamb's lay-in gave UConn the lead, and after dodging a couple of bullets in the final 33.4 seconds, the Huskies had done the unthinkable, something unprecedented in the history of college basketball -- winning five games in five days en route to a conference championship.
This tournament will be remembered for Walker's virtuoso performance -- 130 points in five games, shattering the record for most points in a Division I conference tourney. But the best thing Walker did this week in New York might be something that doesn't show up in a box score.
He trusted his teammates.
In the Huskies' semifinal win over Syracuse on Friday night, Walker -- swarmed by defenders -- twice gave up the ball to Lamb on critical possessions in overtime, and Lamb rewarded him with a bucket on each occasion.
And in Saturday night's title game, running on fumes, Walker did it again.
Walker, a junior and this team's definitive leader, laid the groundwork for this long ago, before the season began. This team is chock full of young players -- three freshmen and a sophomore started alongside Walker on Saturday night. And the young players needed some help.
"A lot of people don't realize the things that me and [senior] Donnell [Beverly] did this season with the freshmen," Walker said. "A lot of those guys had stretches where they were horrible. But we told 'em that it happens -- 'You're only a freshman, don't put so much pressure on yourself.' Just things like that. A lot of talking to those guys."
And Walker didn't just talk to the younger players -- he showed faith in them. Walker is a prolific scorer, fourth-best in the country (23.7 ppg). But there were times -- like the past two nights -- when he put the ball in others' hands in key situations. He knew he couldn't do this all by himself. He knew he would need help to get where he wanted to go -- to win a Big East championship and maybe more.
"I always had trust in these guys. It was just, at one point those guys weren't confident enough, and they just weren't ready early in the season to do things," Walker said. "Jeremy wasn't even playing much in the beginning of the season. But as the year went on, he adjusted, and he was able to figure it out.
"I always had faith in these guys. They always seem to do things where I'll be like, 'Wow.' They're a special group of guys."
Walker even tried to convince his coach of how good some of the other players could be.
"Kemba kept telling me, [Lamb's] big-time, he's big-time. And you know what, he's big-time," Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. "I have enough confidence in Kemba. And I'm getting -- I have had all year, but even more so, confidence in his teammates, that they can carry that kind of burden without him."
Calhoun was referring there to putting Walker on the bench after he picked up his second foul with 7:15 left in the first half Saturday night. Walker sat for the rest of the half except the last offensive possession. And the other players rewarded Calhoun's, and Walker's, trust. Freshman forward Roscoe Smith drained back-to-back jumpers. Sophomore guard Jamal Coombs-McDaniel drained one, too. UConn remained in the lead at intermission, 38-32.
And in the second half, when Walker was out of gas -- scoring only one field goal, taking only six shots -- his teammates picked up the slack again, particularly Lamb on that critical play in the final minute.
"[Kemba] never quit, he never lost faith in me -- he never lost faith in any of us," said Lamb, who finished with 13 points and seven rebounds. "And that means a lot."
Other teammates echoed that message after the game.
"When you have one of the best point guards in the country, and you're a big man, and he wants to give you the ball, he's confident in you, it makes you that much better," said sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi, who averaged a double-double (11.2 ppg, 10.0 rpg) in this tournament.
"He told us just to keep fighting and to be a competitor -- you have your good games, and you have your bad games, but overall, this is what you fight for," Coombs-McDaniel said. "He logged a lot of minutes all week long. He just told us, be there for him. And that's what we did."
UConn won a Big East championship on Saturday night even though Walker went a stretch of 23 minutes and 25 seconds without a field goal. Who would have predicted that?
He still led his team in scoring with 19 points. But he led it in a far more important way than that.
Instead of being a one-man show, he decided to nurture some teammates along the way.
And in the end, a pass was the biggest play of them all.