Fourth Place: Kemba Walker in 2011
The Connecticut Huskies had a problem. Despite winning the Maui Invitational to start the year and rising as high as 4th in the AP Poll, they were falling apart as March 2011 began. They had one of the nation's leading scorers in Kemba Walker and freshman Shabazz Napier providing excellent D, but finished their Big East schedule on a 4-7 run. Still, the voters respected them. Despite dropping to the 9th seed in the Big East Tournament, UCONN ranked 21st in the country entering the second week of March. With eleven Big East teams ultimately making the Big Dance, Connecticut didn't need a huge conference tournament to get an at-large bid, but a few wins would certainly not go amiss.
DePaul provided an easy first round matchup for the Huskies. Powered by Walker's 26 points, Connecticut sprinted out to a 17-point lead at halftime and never looked back, winning 97-71. Their second-round date with 22nd-ranked Georgetown proved just as easy. This time, Walker scored 28 and added six rebounds and three assists en route to a 79-62 victory. The Huskies held Georgetown to 23% shooting from beyond the arc, with leading scorers Austin Freeman and Jason Clark combining to go 2 of 13 from three-point range.
Next up were the top-ranked Pitt Panthers for Connecticut's third game in three days. With just one unranked team remaining in the tournament, UCONN's path beyond the quarterfinals was assuredly more difficult than their previous two contests. Freshman Panther guard Ashton Gibbs took advantage of the spotlight to outscore Walker with a career-high 27 points. However, Walker's heroics would carry the day.
Tied at 74 with ten seconds to go, Kemba left no illusion as to who would decide this game. Off of a screen at the top of the key, Walker drew the mismatch we was looking for in 6'11" center Gary McGhee. What happened next was textbook ankle-breaking. Five seconds, Walker feints right, crosses over, takes a quick dribble left (McGhee's on the floor now), step back top of the key, buckets.
Friday's semifinals (UCONN's fourth game in four days for those keeping track at home) brought a date with #11 Syracuse. Behind Walker's 29 points, the Huskies appeared to gave the game in hand with 25 seconds remaining. An Alex Oriakhi one-and-one stretched the Connecticut lead to 68-62. Oriakhi missed the second attempt, setting the scene for the Scoop Jardine show.
Jardine quickly nailed a three to cut the Husky lead in half. Shabazz Napier missed the front end of a one-and-one with a chance to put the game beyond reach. With six seconds left on the clock, Jardine drilled his second three-pointer in fifteen seconds to force overtime.
The extra period gave Walker a chance to showcase his own free throw shooting ability. Where Oriakhi and Napier had failed, Kemba made all four of his foul shots in overtime, outscoring Syracuse in the process. A couple rebounds also boostsed Walker's double-double to 33 points and 12 boards. He missed only one of his fourteen free throw attempts while playing all 45 minutes.
Walker's tired legs weighed him down a bit in the Championship Game against Louisville, UCONN's fifth in five nights. The usually sure shooter dipped below 50% from the field and racked up four fouls and five turnovers. Down one with less than a minute remaining, Walker tried to put the team on his back as he had two nights before against Pitt. This time, Louisville's defense refused to allow the iso, double-teaming Walker beyond the three-point arc. Kemba split the trap, taking it to the hole and dishing it to Jeremy Lamb for the go-ahead layup. After a Napier steal, Walker's free throws stretched the Connecticut lead to 67-64.
With 3.9 seconds remaining, Kemba nearly three it all away. Mike Marra, Louisville's inbounds passer who had thrown away the prior possession, found the ball in his hands with an open three-point attempt to tie. Walker closed out on Marra, fouling the 28% three-point shooter in the process. Marra missed the second attempt, letting Husky fans breathe a sigh of relief, and Napier sealed it with a pair of free-throws of his own.
Walker scored 19 in the title game and won the tournament's MVP award. Not done yet, he would go on to lead Connecticut to six more victories in the NCAA Tournament and the National Championship. Connecticut's 11-game winning streak to end the season would go down as one of the greatest runs in college basketball history. And it all started on five straight nights in Madison Square Garden.