NCAA: Kemba Walker leads UConn past San Diego State
AP Sports Writer
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) – Kemba Walker sliced up San Diego State’s defense for 22 points on shots from all angles and distances in the second half of Connecticut’s West regional semifinal.
The Aztecs only kept him down once: A shoulder bump from Jamaal Franklin sent Walker crashing to the Honda Center floor, drawing a technical foul and two momentum-killing free throws.
Walker denied doing any acting on the play. He’s still the star of these resilient Huskies’ remarkable production.
Walker scored 36 points in yet another dynamic postseason performance, driving UConn down the stretch Thursday night to a 74-67 victory that put the Huskies on the brink of another Final Four.
“I’m just trying to do the best I can do,” said Walker, who scored 12 straight points for UConn in the final minutes. “Whether it’s scoring, talking, getting their confidence up or giving an assist, I’m just trying to do whatever is possible to enhance this team.”
Freshman Jeremy Lamb added a season-high 24 points and hit a clutch 3-pointer with 1:43 left for the third-seeded Huskies (29-9), who are headed to an NCAA regional final for the 10th time after beating the Aztecs and a building full of hostile fans just 90 minutes from San Diego.
“I’ve never been in an environment like this,” said Lamb, perfect on three 3-pointers. “Kemba hit some big shots, I hit some big shots, and we were able to pull it out. They had a lot of fans. I’ve never played in a game like it.”
The Huskies will meet the winner of Duke’s late game against Arizona on Saturday.
UConn has been streaking ever since its regular season ended with four losses in five games. Walker, their fearless playmaker from the Bronx who’s generously listed at 6-foot-1, drove them to the Big East tournament title with five wins in five days.
The Huskies then knocked off Bucknell and Cincinnati in the first two NCAA rounds to earn a trip into the backyard of the second-seeded Aztecs (34-3), who hadn’t lost to anybody but BYU during the best season in school history.
Walker and his teammates didn’t flinch.
“This run has been sensational, and I haven’t yet been able to put it in perspective,” said Huskies coach Jim Calhoun, who was cited by the NCAA last month for recruiting violations and failing to create an atmosphere of compliance. “I couldn’t have asked for a better gift than this team, and then we get this. I don’t remember anything quite like this. This is different. This team genuinely believes in themselves and each other.
“I hate to say this, but this is an old-fashioned team.”
With a newfangled scoring star who doesn’t allow his size of his opponents’ defense to stop his feats.
Walker outdueled Aztecs point guard D.J. Gay, who scored 16 points and trimmed UConn’s second-half lead to 65-64 on a 3-pointer with 2:53 to play. Lamb replied with his 3, and his emphatic last-second dunk set off a celebration in the section of thoroughly outnumbered UConn fans.
“When your season comes to a screeching halt, like it will for every team with one exception, it hurts,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. “It should hurt, regardless of when, where and how. For our team this year, for what they’ve accomplished, it hurts exponentially more. I could not be more proud of how we competed, how hard we played, and unfortunately we came up a bit short.”
Gay scored 16 points for the Aztecs. Kawhi Leonard had 12 points and nine rebounds but never dominated inside, while Billy White added 14 points.
“Both teams fed off each other,” Gay said. “When one team threw a punch, the other team threw a punch, back and forth. … Starting the second half, we were down, and there was a need for me to get more aggressive offensively. We tried to speed the tempo up, get more guys open shots, but it didn’t work out.”
Thousands of San Diego State fans who sold out every home game on campus this season turned Honda Center into Montezuma Mesa North, singing along to their favorite pep band songs and thoroughly drowning out UConn’s cross-country travelers.
But the West Coast vibe suits the Huskies, who also came out of this region during their runs to the 1999 and 2004 national titles, along with their trip to the 2009 Final Four.
Walker scored 14 points in the first half to stake UConn to a 36-27 lead during a 19-5 run. Walker’s layup put UConn up 40-32 early in the second half, but the Aztecs finally remembered they’re bigger and taller than the Huskies, repeatedly using their advantages to set up open shots while keeping Walker’s teammates from getting comfortable.
Back-to-back buckets put San Diego State up 53-49 with 9:19 to play – and that’s when Walker’s savvy stopped the rally cold.
After Franklin made a steal and fed White for a layup, Franklin and Walker exchanged a little trash talk. On the way back to their benches moments later, Franklin and Walker bumped shoulders – and Walker went crashing to the floor, drawing a technical foul and hitting both free throws.
“The contact was definitely enough to go down,” Walker said with a grin.
Leonard had four early points and three rebounds before getting a technical foul after an argument with UConn’s Alex Oriakhi. The foul was Leonard’s second, sending him to the bench just 3:48 into the first half. The Huskies trailed until Walker led a 10-0 run to take a halftime lead – and he was just getting started.
“My teammates, they want me to take those shots,” Walker said. “As long as they have confidence in me, I’m going to take them.”