ANAHEIM, Calif. -- When Arizona's Jamelle Horne rose up from the right wing, final seconds ticking down, Final Four berth on the line, the hard part was over for Connecticut.
They had overcome, well, everything. The travel, the crowd, the doubters, the NCAA, everything. Remember, this odyssey began in the South Pacific last November. It continued through a so-so Big East regular season. The NCAA butt in during the middle of it and suspended the head coach (three games, next season). History was made in the Big East tournament. Five games, five wins, in five days.
The NCAA tournament, then, had to be easy. There were actual days off. So at the end of its ninth game in 19 days, playing 3,000 miles from home and light years from where it began, the Huskies knew. Horne was going to miss the shot, the clock was going to run out and an at-times irascible 68-year-old coach was going to give the world another up yours.
"As with all Coach [Jim] Calhoun teams, when it comes tournament time," said Emeka Okafor, out on the Honda Center floor celebrating UConn's 65-63 win, "the toughness comes out."
Okafor, now with New Orleans of the NBA, was a significant piece to the Huskies' last championship piece in 2004. He had to be there Saturday with the rest of the section of UConn fans surrounded by Arizona red at Honda to see if it could be done. They had to see if a team that had finished ninth in the Big East, that had lost four of its last five in the regular season, that had lost its confidence could survive what amounted to a true road game in the West Regional final.
They had to see if a team breaking in seven freshmen had grown up. They had to see if superstar Kemba Walker was, after this long slog, used up. They had to see for themselves.
"When we played DePaul, honestly, I didn't know what to expect," forward Alex Oriakhi said. "We had two great practices before we went off to the Big East tournament and coach said, 'I'm not going to give [up] on you guys. I'm not going to let you quit.' Since then we've been playing our hearts out."
Those who saved their ticket stubs from that March 8 first-round Big East game at Madison Square Garden now have a piece of history. After nine games in 19 days Walker emerged as perhaps the tournament's best player, if he wasn't already the nation's best player. In those games, he has averaged 26.3 points and 5.3 assists. Those nine games in 19 days saw freshman Jeremy Lamb perhaps become Walker's heir apparent.
It was also a nice bit of "payback." Lamb's father Rolando beat Calhoun's Northeastern team in 1984 with a last-second leaner.
"I told him he owed me one and he certainly has," Calhoun said. "He's paid me back ten-fold."
Twenty-seven years after that heartbreaker, Norcross, Georgia's own Little Lamb had 19 points, giving him 43 in the two West Regional games. He looked a bit like Walker did two years ago in Glendale, Ariz. Back then, Kemba was a freshman just trying to fit in with a team that beat Missouri in the West Regional final to go to the Final Four.
"Jeremy is the man," a delirious Andrea Walker, Kemba's mom, said from the stands afterward. "He is the man, next to my baby. My son is the old man. Jeremy is the young man."
During the run, Connecticut won big (two blowouts of more than 26 points) and small. Saturday's game was its fourth during that stretch by five points or less. Six of those nine wins came over ranked teams.
"This unique group of young guys have just given me a thrill beyond compare," said Calhoun after getting to his fourth Final Four. "Our march in the last nine games, I haven't experienced anything like this ... I've never seen a team do what this team has done."
His team won a game of runs. UConn blew a nine-point lead with 10½ minutes left. Back-to-back dunks by Derrick Williams and Jesse Perry in the middle of an Arizona 14-2 run rocked the Honda Center and gave the Wildcats a three-point lead. UConn responded by scoring the next 10 points.
Arizona scrapped its way back in. Down by two after a timeout with 18.2 seconds left, Williams launched a three from the top of the arc with seven seconds left that missed. After a scrum, Horne found himself with an open three from the right side with two seconds left. After scoring 237 points in those nine games, all Walker could do was hope that the dream wasn't going to die.
"I said it out loud, I said, 'Game time,'" Walker said. "I thought it was going in, honestly."
It didn't because it couldn't. Saturday was a reward. These Huskies had in put their work. This all started with an unlikely Maui Invitational win in November. Calhoun pointed out that his team was also good enough to beat Michigan State, Kentucky, Texas, Tennessee and Pittsburgh along the way. He didn't mention what is certainly going to be a topic of conversation in Houston next week. Calhoun will sit out the first three Big East games of next season, part of the NCAA's penalties against the school for recruiting violations. The news of those violations broke two years ago during that West Regional in Glendale.
Give the man, though, credit for staying focused all this time. He can compartmentalize. And when he wins a big one like this, look out. With the podium to himself Calhoun shot back at Charles Barkley, who had called the conference that prepared the Huskies for this moment, "The Big Least".
"The large gentleman that called us that," Calhoun said, "the ninth place team in 'The Big Least', is now the Final Four."