WASHINGTON -- The scene was surreal and almost funny. No, actually, it was definitely funny.
Connecticut guard Kemba Walker, part rock star, one of the more recognizable names in college basketball today, walked onto the Verizon Center court in the minutes before playing Bucknell. The Bison players, seeing him, stared at Walker. Three or four of them then gathered closely and whispered to each other. They looked star struck. They were star struck.
It seemed like a bad omen and then something strange happened. The Bucknell team, basically cannon fodder, decided against asking Walker for an autograph, and for a few delicious minutes, beat the hell out of one of the best players in the country.
That was Bucknell's moral victory -- holding Walker scoreless for a nice chunk of the opening minutes and to four points with seven minutes remaining in the first half. Of course, Bucknell was eventually obliterated, 81-52, in an anti-bracket buster of a game, but hell, take what you can when you're Bucknell going against the jolly UConn giant.
"I think it was because the way the defense was playing," Walker said when asked why he took so few shots early. "I knew coming into the game that they thought I was going to try to be extremely aggressive and try to score, but I just took whatever they gave me. As the game went on I [saw] that my teammates were getting a lot of open shots and I just told those guys to be ready and they were ready and they made shots."
It was only a matter of time before Walker was re-energized and solved Bucknell's MacGyvered defenses. The hop-steps, the no looks, they all returned and so did the scoring. Walker finished with 18 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds. He was, not even close, the best player on the floor.
Connecticut can take solace in how the rest of the Huskies responded while Walker struggled early. Yes, of course, it was Bucknell, but a nice cavalcade of UConn players filled in the gap led by the firm of Lamb, Smith and Oriakhi -- Jeremy Lamb had 16 points, Roscoe Smith 17 and Alex Oriakhi had 12 rebounds.
"Obviously I like Kemba the assist man so I could score some more," said a joking Oriakhi, "but he definitely did a good job, but not forcing the issue. Every time I came off a pick basically he had two guys on him and they didn't know that we have other players on the team that could actually score, and are very good as well and we made them pay. Roscoe had a great game. Jeremy had a great game. And we just made them pay because they put so much attention on Kemba."
As Walker faced myriad Bucknell defenses that included triple teams and sonar, the remainder of the Huskies played on, their agility and thickness becoming an unshakeable weight.
"We felt like we were going to have to pick our poison to some degree," Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. "We wanted them to have to beat us from over the top. I thought we did a pretty good job early. And again, you're going to have to make some choices, but to give up 13 offensive rebounds, I thought that was more problematic and then we were stuck on 20 for seemed like about two years offensively. And if you're going to beat a team or compete with a team like UConn, you also have to score because that just -- it shrinks your defense. And we are kind of like that football team whose defense is on the field the whole time and the [goes] offense three and out, three and out, three and out. It just -- there's a cumulative effect of that."
In other words, UConn has stars besides Walker. We already knew that but now the NCAA tournament field will see it, too.