March 26, 2011
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) - With nine pressure-packed victories in 19 days, Connecticut has been on an exhausting sprint through the postseason for nearly three weeks now.
Turns out Kemba Walker and his Huskies aren't slowing down until they get to Houston.
Walker scored 20 points, freshman Jeremy Lamb added 19 and Connecticut earned its second Final Four berth in three years, beating Arizona 65-63 Saturday to win the West regional.
Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne missed 3-pointers in the final seconds for Arizona, allowing the third-seeded Huskies (30-9) to hang on after Lamb, the Huskies' fearless freshman, scored six key points down the stretch.
After missing the NCAA tournament entirely last year, coach Jim Calhoun's tireless team is headed to UConn's fourth Final Four, punctuated by an ebullient celebration in a building packed with Arizona fans.
"This is no time to be tired," Walker said. "We're trying to get as far as possible. We want to win this whole thing."
Williams had 20 points while battling foul trouble for the fifth-seeded Wildcats (30-8), who led with 6 minutes to play. After Lamb pushed the Huskies ahead and Walker hit a jumper with 1:13 left, Lamont Jones and Horne then hit late 3-pointers for Arizona, but the Wildcats couldn't convert two good looks in the final seconds.
"The second one, I thought it was definitely going in," Lamb said. "When he missed it, I looked at the clock and saw zero-zero, and I just went, 'Whooooo.' It's the best feeling I've ever had."
UConn also made the Final Four in 1999, 2004 and 2009 - all three times out of the West. In sweet redemption for a program and a veteran coach tarred by scandals over the past year, the Huskies will face the winner of North Carolina's East regional final against Kentucky next Saturday.
The Huskies are the last team standing from the Big East's 11 NCAA entrants. After going 9-9 in regular-season conference play, they've done more than even Calhoun might have expected just three weeks ago.
After the Wildcats missed their final two shots, Walker and Calhoun wrapped each other in a bear hug at center court after the buzzer as Emeka Okafor, Jake Voskuhl and other UConn alums celebrated on the court.
The two-time national champion coach has referred to his group as "an old-fashioned team," a praise of their work ethic and resilience. But they also showed remarkable poise down the stretch in a building firmly in favor of the Wildcats.
"I definitely expected to play in the NCAA tournament and have a chance at the Final Four when I chose UConn," Lamb said. "I just didn't know it would happen this fast."
A year after Arizona's 25-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances ended, the Wildcats and second-year coach Sean Miller were one 3-pointer away from a return to the Final Four. Williams demolished Duke in the regional semifinals with a career-high 32 points, but three early fouls limited him to 7 minutes in the first half against UConn.
Jesse Perry scored 14 points for Arizona, which trailed 34-25 early in the second half before scoring nine straight points. The Wildcats reclaimed the lead with 14 1/2 minutes left on Williams' layup, but UConn quickly scored seven consecutive points.
The Huskies led 50-41 until the Wildcats made a 12-2 run that included two rim-ripping dunks by Williams and the go-ahead slam by Perry with 7:17 left. With Honda Center rocking in Arizona red, Lamb smoothly put the Huskies ahead before following Alex Oriakhi's putback layup with a steal and a dunk with 3:08 left for a seven-point lead.
UConn just keeps rolling in what has shaped up as a magnificent season after last year's disappointing NIT trip. The Huskies roared through the league tournament with an unprecedented display of endurance - five wins in five days - at Madison Square Garden.
"I only feel tired after everything is over," Walker said. "When I'm playing, it's no problem. I'm good."
Walker kept up his incredible scoring pace in the tournament, dropping 33 points on Cincinnati before equaling the highest-scoring tourney game in UConn history with 36 against San Diego State in the regional semis.
Jones did a fairly decent job slowing Walker, his good friend since the sixth grade in New York City. They played together for two years at Harlem's Rice High School, although Walker claimed their history wouldn't give Jones an advantage in their first head-to-head meeting since their AAU days.
Good thing Walker had Lamb, the lanky shooter who betrayed no inkling of nerves in the biggest game of his life.
Arizona won the Pac-10 regular-season title and made the top 10 for the first time in late February, but lost consecutive league games in Los Angeles before dropping the Pac-10 tourney finale to Washington on a buzzer-beater.
Last week, Arizona knocked off powerful Memphis and Texas before their 93-77 victory over the Blue Devils.
The West Coast crowd was solidly behind Arizona, with red-and-blue fans filling most of the lower bowl. Williams and the Wildcats repeatedly waved their arms before UConn's possessions, riling up the noisy crowd.