NEW YORK — Kemba. That needs to be the first word of this post. Clearly.
It’d be a fool’s errand to make my primary blog post for UConn-Pitt off anything but the final play and Kemba Walker.
And, at the same time, what can there be said? This isn’t new. This isn’t hair-tugging, unexpected drama. This is old hat. Walker’s done this all season long. He’s hit clutch, game-winning shots. That’s him. His legacy is secured; the possibility of becoming legendary hangs in the unknown of the next few days of the Big East tournament and the following weeks of the NCAAs.
“The play before I missed a shot and my teammates told me, ‘Stay aggressive,’” Walker said. “And anybody in the world knew that ball was coming to me.”
Walker clearly took the atmosphere, attention and drama of the Big East tournament to another level. This is hardly surprising, but it's exciting all the same.
But here's something to remember: Walker admitted his confidence was a little down, as he told me in our one-on-one video interview. Huskies fans know the counter to all this just as well: Walker’s missed nearly as many big shots as he’s hit. He’s taken a lion’s share of bad jumpers. Turnovers, ugly looking ones in the lane, those have popped up all too frequently as well. The man who has climbed up the all-time rankings in UConn lore remains as exciting as ever, and in the final seconds of a game, the great dichotomy exists.
Yeah, Kemba’s going to be the one that gets and shoots the ball, but what’s going to happen before that? The great unknown. He’s not Mr. Reliable. Has never claimed to be. But more often than not, Walker’s saved UConn this season and turned them into the top-four seed they’ll be come Selection Sunday.
Thursday afternoon in Madison Square Garden, it was another clip for the ever-looping highlight reel. A poor, helpless Gary McGhee suddenly found himself on an island with the nation’s quickest point guard.
Walker could’ve easily blown by the 6-10 Panthers center, but instead chose to yo-yo him before snapping his ankles in front of 19,375 people. Then ball beautifully fell through the hoop, and Madison Square Garden exploded.
“I was going to go to the basket on him,” Walker said. “I was going to penetrate and get a layup or get a foul for a teammate but he fell so I was able to get a clean, clean look at the rim. So I took my shot.”
And everything prior to that is forgotten. The fact UConn embarrassed Pittsburgh on the glass, the fact the Panthers blew a big first-half lead — none of it matters. Underneath the subplots playing out in the final minutes was Walker willing himself toward his ultimate moment.
I can’t remember a player who more embodies the notion of shoot-no-matter-the-circumstance than Walker. He’s more likely to win a game for the Huskies than he is to lose it, but the uncertainty that hangs in the air is what makes UConn — and Walker — so mesmerizing.
“Like I said, I think he’s the most important guy for a single team in college basketball,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said.
Can’t disagree with that. Not when it seems pretty clear UConn wouldn’t be an NCAA tournament team without its star junior guard. Now, primetime and the weekend awaits.
“As we go into play beyond this, and I was telling the kids, we have not experienced it recently, but Friday night in Madison Square Garden, semifinal, it’s a pretty special building to walk into,” Calhoun said. “And they’ll have an opportunity to do that tomorrow night.”
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