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Big East Tournament Flashback: Kemba carries UConn to an NCAA title

On the back of one of the top postseason performances by a single player ever, Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies stormed their way to an NCAA Championship

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

During the 2010-11 men's basketball season, the Connecticut Huskies were a lot of things. They were early-season tournament champions at the Maui Invitational, a sexy title pick in January with a 17-2 record, a free-falling mess that lost seven of their final eleven regular season games, resurgent conference champs and finally, NCAA champions.

Looking back at those Huskies, things seemed to swing back in their favor on March 10, 2011, as junior point guard Kemba Walker rose up like a damned phoenix from the ashes, knocking off the No. 3 Pittsburgh Panthers with a buzzer-beating jumper that sent UConn to the semifinals of the Big East Tournament.

That's the shot that inspired this article. When Chris threw out the idea for a series of Big East tourney flashbacks, there was only one that really, truly still sits at the forefront of my mind. However, in order to fully understand the magnitude of Kemba's heroics that day, we have to go back. Back to the days of the old Big East conference, and the UConn team that rode the roller coaster to an improbable win on the biggest stage. This is their story.


The Pre-Season

The summer of 2010 was not a fun one for the Connecticut Huskies. They were coming off a season in which the team had lost eleven of their final 17 games, gotten trounced in the first round of the Big East tournament by St. John's, lost out in the NIT in the second round, and to make matters worse for then-head coach Jim Calhoun, the NCAA had slapped a notice of alleged recruiting violations on his desk in May.

According to the New York Times, the alleged violations surrounded the recruitment of Nate Miles, a former UConn guard who had been expelled in 2008 before ever even taking to the court in a Huskies uniform. Amidst the allegations, two of Calhoun's assistants, Beau Archibald and Patrick Sellers, stepped down from their positions with the team after being accused of lying to NCAA investigators over the course of their 15-month investigation.

This resulted in the hirings of two new assistants with whom Calhoun had previously worked: Kevin Ollie, a former UConn player, and Glen Miller, who had done a stint with the Huskies as an assistant in the late 80's and early 90's. In the end, Calhoun was suspended for three games during the 2011-12 season, and the program had to forfeit three scholarships while serving a three-year probation sentence.

On the player side, Calhoun was going to have his hands full with replacing every starter from the previous season not named Kemba Walker or Alex Oriakhi, a 6'9" forward who played a bulk of minutes at center the previous year. To his advantage, the Huskies had a strong recruiting class on its way in, headlined by ESPN100 forward Roscoe Smith and four-star guards Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb. ranked the incoming UConn class as the 15th best in the nation, but for the team to be successful, the heavy lifting was going to have to be done by their incumbent star: Walker.

While the team was picked to finish tenth in the Big East in the pre-season polls and failed to make the AP Top 25, Walker went into the season with high expectations from the media. The junior guard was named to the watch list for both the Naismith and Wooden awards, and was chosen for the pre-season All-Big East first team after averaging 14.6 points and five assists per game the year before. With expectations for the team low, it was imperative for Calhoun, Walker and his teammates to strike early in the season.


Big Winners in Maui

Once the regular season kicked off, the Huskies started out with back-to-back victories before heading to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational over the Thanksgiving holiday. The Maui field was loaded in 2010, led by No. 2 Michigan State and their killer one-two punch of senior guard Kalin Lucas and junior forward Draymond Green. After the Spartans, the tournament featured a No. 8 Kentucky squad that had lost freshman stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins to the NBA Draft just months before, and No. 13 Washington, with a ridiculous backcourt featuring future NBA players Isaiah Thomas, Terrence Ross, Justin Holiday and C.J. Wilcox.

UConn drew Wichita State, who would go on to win the NIT that season, in the first round. The Shockers were still a year away from storming into the NCAA tournament as a perennial mid-major contender, but posed an interesting threat to the Huskies in the Maui opener. Wichita State boasted a versatile guard of their own in junior Toure' Murry, and after Walker got into foul trouble in the first half and played just five minutes, Murry looked to be getting the better end of the guard matchup. However, the Huskies still held a one-point lead at the half, and Walker exploded for 29 of his 31 points to seal the 83-79 UConn victory in the second half.

The second round saw the Huskies take on the Spartans, fresh off of a thwarted upset scare from Chaminade in the first round. It was a statement game for Calhoun's squad, a first look at one of the truly elite teams in the country. Walker once again took the reigns on the floor, scoring 30 points on 10-19 shooting, while Oriakhi grabbed a game-high 17 rebounds. It marked the second game in a row in which Walker scored 30 points or more, but it also meant that the Huskies would be left to face Kentucky in the tournament final after the Wildcats took down Washington in the second round.

Following the win over the Wildcats, Kentucky head coach John Calipari told the Associated Press "that was a shellacking. We were outplayed, out-coached, out-everythinged."

In a surprising turn, UConn would knock out the Wildcats with their largest win margin of the entire Maui trip. The Huskies won the final 84-67, once again behind another dominant turn from Walker, who had 29 points and six assists. After averaging 30 points per game during the team's three games in Maui, Walker was named Tournament MVP. Following the win over the Wildcats, Kentucky head coach John Calipari told the Associated Press "that was a shellacking. We were outplayed, out-coached, out-everythinged." Despite Walker's dominance, perhaps the biggest takeaway was on the team level: the Huskies, despite low preseason expectations, were back in business.


Huskies Make a Run

Coming out of the Thanksgiving tournaments, UConn jumped all the way from unranked to the No. 9 team in the country in the AP poll. Upon returning home, the Huskies blew through a five-game stretch of New Hampshire, UMBC, Fairleigh Dickinson, Coppin State and Harvard with an average win margin of 21 points per game. It was a start no one had seen coming, opening up the season with an undefeated 10-0 record while rising up to the No. 4 rank in the polls.

On Dec. 27, however, the Huskies were given their first rude awakening. Opening conference play, the team travelled to No. 6 Pittsburgh, who had started out the year 12-1 behind the play of star guard Ashton Gibbs. If the Gibbs name sounds familiar to Big East basketball fans, it's because it should. Ashton is the older brother of current Seton Hall guard Sterling Gibbs, who plays like a carbon copy of his older brother, just with more sucker punches.

Despite a dominant 31 point, four assist, five steal outing from Walker, the Panthers smacked the Huskies 78-63, leading by as much as 17 points at one point during the game. Unable to get any offensive contribution from his teammates, Walker was forced to take 27 shots, and the team ended up shooting just 31 percent from the field. It was the start of a tough stretch for UConn in which they barely survived an overtime battle with South Florida and fell to No. 14 Notre Dame by three on the road.

Just four days after the loss to Ben Hansbrough and the Fighting Irish, the Huskies regained their footing with an overtime non-conference victory against No. 12 Texas in Austin. That night, it didn't matter that UConn trailed at the half. It didn't matter that Walker had to once again shoot 27 times to keep the team in the game. It didn't matter, because in overtime, this happened:

It was the first glimpse at late-game heroics from Walker, and sent a lesson to opposing defenses that would become extremely important over the course of the season: DON'T GIVE KEMBA ANY SPACE WITH THE GAME ON THE LINE.

It was a temporary good luck charm for the Huskies, who ripped off a five-game win streak after the circus shot game, including another game-winner from Walker against No. 7 Villanova.

With nineteen games under their belt, UConn had stormed out to a 17-2 start, including an impressive 5-2 record in the Big East. As of Jan. 29, the Huskies found themselves ranked No. 5 in the AP poll heading into a home contest with No. 23 Louisville. However, chugging full steam ahead behind an engine of Kemba Walker and his freshman sidekick Jeremy Lamb, Calhoun's squad failed to see the storm headed their way.


The Wheels Fall Off

Let's flash back to the aforementioned showdown with Louisville on Jan. 29. In a lot of ways, that contest served as the straw that broke the camel's back for the six weeks leading up to the Big East tournament. The Cardinals won that game 79-78 after two overtime periods, and while Walker and Lamb scored over half of their team's points, they finished a combined 3-of-17 from three-point territory. At the time, it was just a devastating blow after a hard-fought game, but that loss kicked off a stretch in which the Huskies lost seven of their last eleven games, four of which came against ranked opponents.

During that time, the Huskies had the appearance of a prize fighter trying to scrap their way back into the late rounds of a match, even though everyone in the audience knows they're going to run out of energy eventually. In the three games following the double-overtime loss, Walker was held to a season-low eight points in a 66-58 loss to No. 17 Syracuse, the Huskies had to rally back from a 14-point second half deficit to sneak out a two-point victory against Seton Hall, and the team allowed St. John's to score 89 points in a blowout loss at Madison Square Garden.

During that time, the Huskies had the appearance of a prize fighter trying to scrap their way back into the late rounds of a match, even though everyone in the audience knows they're going to run out of energy eventually.

For a short time, things did appear to start getting back on track. However, a two-game winning streak against a MarShon Brooks/Bryce Cotton-led Providence squad and No. 9 Georgetown quickly turned into a two-game losing streak with another loss to Louisville and an overtime defeat from Jimmy Butler and Marquette. Like I said, things looked better for a short time.

Closing out the regular season, the Huskies lost two of their final three games, including a late-game loss to No. 8 Notre Dame, in which Walker missed a potential game winner with the clock ticking down. Due mostly to the team's strong start, the Huskies were able to cling to a spot in the AP poll, sliding 16 spots in six weeks to No. 21 in the nation. After all was said and done, UConn had defeated just five of the eleven ranked teams on their schedule, with four of those wins coming before that ugly final stretch. Finishing with a 9-9 conference record, the Huskies would enter the Big East tournament as the nine seed, falling behind unranked opponents like Cincinnati in the standings.

The say that the stakes were high for UConn heading into the conference tourney would probably be an understatement. Their early momentum seemed to have left itself in the locker room after the first loss to Louisville, and while a deep run could mean validation for a high seed in the NCAA tournament, an early exit to one of the conference's lower-tier teams could just as likely mean a spot on the postseason bubble altogether.


The Shot

Luckily for Calhoun, the seeding process for the Big East tournament gave his team the best possible chance at a momentum-building win to start things off. Due to the nature of the old Big East, which featured 16 teams before the realignments of the 2013 offseason, the top eight seeds receive a first-round bye, leaving the No. 9 seed to face the No. 16 seed in the opening round.

This luck of the draw meant the Huskies would get to open the tournament against a DePaul team that had just one conference victory in 18 Big East games during the regular season. In the end, it was probably the best thing that could have happened, as the Huskies put up a season-high 97 points in a blowout win, including a combined 45 from Walker and Lamb. Taking the ball inside against a devastatingly poor interior defense from the Blue Demons, the Huskies attempted just eight shots from deep while connecting on 60 percent of their field goals on the day.

That afternoon, the Big East announced their postseason awards, snubbing Walker for conference player of the year in favor of Notre Dame guard Ben Hansbrough. Walker was named to the All-Big East first team, but was left of the ballot by at least one of the conference's coaches as he failed to be chosen as a unanimous selection. Calhoun immediately came to Walker's defense, as evidenced in this exchange reported by the Associated Press the next day:

"I think someone took a vacation and didn't tell us and has been gone five months. That's one theory of mine," replied UConn coach Jim Calhoun, when asked how Walker could be overlooked among the five best players in the league.

"Whether we have a player of the year or not," Calhoun continued, "I think he's the best player in the country, and that should be more important."

It was. Walker took the snub to heart, and with a fiery vengeance, stormed into a second-round contest with No. 22 Georgetown the next day. The Huskies dominated during both halves, turning a twelve-point halftime lead into a 79-62 blowout victory. Walker, unsurprisingly, was the star of the game, putting up 28 points, six rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals. The celebration was short-lived, however, as the victory meant a third-round showdown with No. 3 Pittsburgh, who had earned a double-bye in the first two rounds of the conference tournament.

While it had been months since the two teams first played, the 15-point Panther victory in late December had most media pundits favoring Pitt heading into the contest. It didn't matter. What unfolded over the course of 40 minutes would not only define UConn's season, but Walker's entire collegiate career.

Most media pundits were favoring Pitt heading into the contest. It didn't matter. What unfolded over the course of 40 minutes would not only define UConn's season, but Walker's entire collegiate career.

After a back-and-forth first half, the Panthers entered the break with a tight 41-40 lead. Over the course of the second half, both teams traded the lead until, with three minutes remaining, a pair of free throws from freshman guard Shabazz Napier put the Huskies ahead 72-69. On the ensuing possession, Ashton Gibbs missed a deep jumper for the Panthers, which Walker followed up with a miss of his own from the mid-range. Scrambling back on defense, Walker fouled Pittsburgh guard Brad Wanamaker on his way to the hoop, putting the Panthers at the line with just over two minutes remaining.

Wanamaker sank both free throws to cut the UConn lead to one with just over two minutes on the clock, and after trading missed buckets on both ends, a putback from Oriakhi at the 1:02 mark extended the lead to 74-71 in favor of the Huskies. On the next trip down, Gibbs handed the ball off at the top of the key, running towards the basket before cutting across the lane, where teammate Gary McGhee, a 6'11" center, set a screen on Napier. With Napier jammed up, Gibbs found himself wide open at the three-point arc, where he would knock down the game-tying shot off a feed from teammate Nasir Robinson.

Just like that, things were all tied up at 74 with 47.9 seconds on the clock. For a minute, it looked as if Gibbs, who would finish with a game-high 27 points, was going to be playing hero, but Walker had something else in mind. The next trip down, Walker chucked up a Russell Westbrook-style mid-range pull-up jumper in the lane, clanking off the front of the rim before teammate Jamal Coombs-McDaniel battled through three Pittsburgh defenders to come down with the offensive rebound.

The Huskies immediately called timeout, maintaining possession with 18 seconds remaining. Almost like a prophecy of sorts, ESPN showed the highlights of Walker's previous game-winners against Texas and Villanova during the break, never in doubt of who was going to have the ball in their hands when the teams took to the floor for the game's final sequence.

Oriakhi caught the in-bounds pass in the corner, fighting an immediate swarm of Pittsburgh defenders to find Walker at the arc. Walker took the ball to the top of the key, drawing McGhee and his long arms as his primary defender in isolation. Waving off Coombs-McDaniel to create some more space, Walker jabbed to the right, took a step back before jabbing once again to his left. Before he could even dig into the lane, Walker leapfrogged back once again, sending McGhee flailing on his heels, planting his feet and launching a deep mid-range bomb with no defenders in the immediate vicinity.

Splash. Timing his shot perfectly, Walker never even gave the Panthers a chance for a rebuttal as the clock ran to zero. Enveloped in a swarm of teammates, Walker looked on disbelief, as Calhoun ran out onto the court with his hands in the air, jumping around his players before composing himself enough to shake hands with Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon. It was a sequence even the team probably hadn't seen coming based on where they were at coming into the tournament, but proved to be one final kick in the ass the Huskies needed to make a postseason push.

(To see the final three minutes play out in full, skip to the 1:21:00 mark in the video below.)

Walker ended up playing all 40 minutes against the Panthers, scoring 24 points while grabbing five rebounds and dishing out five assists. Even after all the hoopla surrounding his game-winner, the Huskies still had two more games to play before the end of the tournament, starting with No. 11 Syracuse in the semifinals.

It took an overtime period to settle things (just one, not six, like the UConn-'Cuse showdown in the Big East tournament in 2009), but once again, Walker's heroics lifted the Huskies to the victory. This time, their star guard put up a double-double, with 33 points and 12 rebounds as the team picked up the 76-71 victory. On the other end of the bracket, Louisville had just downed Notre Dame in the other semifinal contest, setting up a Big East tournament final with the team that kicked off UConn's downward spiral in late January.

The third time proved to be the charm. After losing both of their first contests with the Cardinals, four UConn players scored in double digits to seal a 69-66 victory for the Huskies, becoming the first team ever to win five games in five days for a conference championship (according to ESPN Stats & Information). In perhaps the least surprising move ever, Walker was named tournament MVP after scoring a combined 130 points over the course of the week.

In five days, the Huskies had gone from one of the nation's coldest powerhouse teams to potentially the most confident squad in the entire tournament field. There were still more games to win, but UConn was right in the middle of the NCAA title hunt.


Underdogs vs. Underdawgs

The Huskies entered the NCAA tournament as a three seed, taking on Patriot League champion Bucknell in the first round. Behind yet another huge performance from Walker, who picked up 12 assists along with his usual scoring kick of 18 points, UConn opened the NCAA tourney the same way they started the conference tournament: a blowout. Walker came up just two rebounds short of a triple-double as his teammates routed the Bison 81-52 to move on to the round of 32.

Two days later, the Huskies took on fellow Big East opponent Cincinnati, who they had defeated by eight in the regular season. This time, Walker scored 16 of his 33 points in the final ten minutes of the second half, breaking things open to lead his team to a 69-58 victory. If it seemed like Walker had been hot in the conference tournament, then words couldn't describe what he was doing at the national level. In the Sweet 16, he dropped 36 against two-seed San Diego State, led by forward Kawhi Leonard, who has done, you know, just a few things in the NBA since. Lamb added 24 points of his own in that game as the Huskies walked away with a 74-67 victory to roll to the Elite Eight.

In the West Region finals, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, it appeared as if fifth-seeded Arizona was going to give UConn a taste of its own medicine with a buzzer-beating attempt of their own. Despite holding a 65-63 lead going into the final possession, 'Zona's Jamelle Horne found himself wide-open for a three that would have sent the Huskies home packing before bouncing off the rim as the clock expired. Rather than hit the game-winning shot, this time, Calhoun's squad was advancing because their opponent had failed to hit theirs.

Rather than hit the game-winning shot, this time, Calhoun's squad was advancing because their opponent had failed to hit theirs.

In a rematch of November's Maui Invitational final, the Huskies drew Calipari's Kentucky squad in the national semifinals. Despite going just 1-of-12 from three as a team, Walker and his teammates took advantage of a Wildcats squad that went almost a full six minutes without a basket late in the second half to hang on for a 56-55 low-scoring victory.

The Final Four featured an interesting dynamic between classic contenders and rising mid-majors. On one hand, you had Calhoun's Huskies and the Kentucky Wildcats, two teams with rich and decorated basketball history, but on the other, you had the stifling defense of VCU, who had entered as an 11-seed, and the Brad Stevens-led Butler Bulldogs, a mid-major who had lost to Duke in the NCAA final just one year before. The Bulldogs took care of VCU in the semifinals, setting up an underdog vs. underdawg matchup for the championship game.

To call the Huskies underdogs at this point feels a bit conceded, but no one, and I mean NO ONE, would have picked them to go this far at the end of the regular season. They may not have come out of the mid-major circuit like Butler, who was still in the Horizon League at the time, but this was most definitely not a title game matchup that anyone had seen coming.

In the end, the final game was nowhere as exciting as the ride that got the two teams there in the first place. The Bulldogs shot a dismal 18 percent from the field for the entire night, making the relatively-low 34 percent that the Huskies shot look tolerable. It wasn't a great game for anyone, as Walker ended up connecting on just five of his 19 shooting attempts for 16 points, and Butler's two-headed monster of Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard combined for just 20 points altogether. In the end, the Huskies won the title game 53-41, earning the school its third national title during Calhoun's tenure.

"Every time we play hard, great things always happen to us," Walker told the Associated Press after the game. Yes, Kemba, they did. They sure did.


After the Banner

In a way, that Pitt game was almost the perfect metaphor for this team. The Huskies entered that contest with low expectations from everyone around them, much like they did with the season as a whole. And after an impressive start, followed by few lulls, it was a late surge that put them over the top. Both the game and the overall season ended in very similar ways, with the Huskies on top thanks to a little bit of luck and lot of Kemba Walker heroics. When you look at when that team went from a competitive squad to a bonafide contender, it all started that day against Pittsburgh. One win led to another, which led to eleven straight postseason wins and another banner in the rafters.

Calhoun went on to retire in after the 2012 season, handing the head coaching reigns off to Ollie. However, it was his players that have gone on to have success at the next level.

That summer, Walker rode his momentum among scouts and pundits to the NBA Draft, selected No. 9 overall by the Charlotte Bobcats (now the Charlotte Hornets). Lamb would come out of school after his sophomore year, going No. 12 in the draft to the Houston Rockets before getting shipped to Oklahoma City as the centerpiece of the infamous James Harden deal. After the arrival of star freshman Andre Drummond the next season, Oriakhi would go on to transfer to Missouri before eventually getting drafted by the Phoenix Suns in the second round in 2013.

As for Napier, well, that's a story for another time...