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Kemba leads Huskies, but there's plenty of talent in the pack

by | CBS Sports
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HOUSTON -- The big numbers you know already.

Kemba Walker: 40 minutes, 18 points, seven assists, two blocks and two steals.

Jeremy Lamb: 12 points, eight rebounds, four assists.

Alex Oriakhi: Eight points and 10 rebounds.

Those are the stats for the most obvious contributors to UConn's narrow 56-55 win over John Calipari's star-studded Kentucky Wildcats. In a game like this one, however, it's often the hidden role players who end up giving the little nudge that gets an entire team over the hump.

Niels Giffey, a 6-foot-7 freshman from Berlin, Germany, played eight minutes, tallying one rebound and one steal. It might not sound like much, but they meant a lot to a kid who logged just five minutes total out of UConn's last three tournament games.

This most recent eight minutes -- played mostly in the first half of Saturday's contest -- may have given the team's starters just a little more gas to burn when the clock was running down.

"My job was to rebound and play defense," Giffey said in the midst of the post-game revelry. "When I was in the game, we were a bit smaller and we could run the fast break. I noticed that both teams slowed down some at the end of the game and I think that [early burst] really helped."

The story was a bit different for Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (two points), a 6-foot-7 sophomore, who has seen his numbers dwindle from a season-high of 38, garnered in a February win over Georgetown. As recently as the Sweet 16 win over San Diego State, Coombs-McDaniel played 24 minutes, which dropped abruptly to seven against Arizona and nine in the semifinal.

No matter. "I'm just going to remember being here with my brothers and playing for a national title," the Massachusetts native said. "Coach just told me to get in there and rebound.

"I know they only played six guys," Coombs-McDaniel observed. "You could see it in their legs when they short-rimmed some [late] jump shots. That worked in our favor."

Getting his young team to buy into roles they might not have immediately relished is one of the more impressive feats Jim Calhoun has pulled off this season. He took a lightly-regarded team with one of the youngest and least experienced rosters in D-I hoops and molded them into a unit capable of overcoming all obstacles on the way to a cherished goal: the national title game.

The player who stole the most moments in the semifinal was Nigerian-born senior center Charles Okwandu. His stat line was, again, not that impressive on first glance: 16 minutes, four points, one rebound, a block and two steals.

It wasn't so much what Okwandu did as when he did it that meant so much to the Huskies. With starter Alex Oriakhi carrying four fouls late in the game, Okwandu's job was to enter the game on defensive possessions, play smart and then get back to the bench when Oriakhi was needed on the offensive end. Like his teammates, Okwandu didn't mind playing the role he needed to play.

It's worth noting that Calhoun's instructions to his subs always included that admonishment to play defense. UConn's most prominent bench player, Shabazz Napier, may score around 10 points per game on average, but he earns his minutes with defense more than anything. Napier didn't have a steal, but he grabbed two defensive rebounds to go with four points and an equal number of assists.

In April, big players must come up big. UConn's victory over a determined but short-handed Kentucky squad once again shows that the seldom-seen bench jockeys earn their day in the sun as well.

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