NEW YORK — The championship game’s still to come, but why wait another 24 hours to state what’s true now? Kemba Walker is a Big East tournament legend. Icon. Bar-raiser. He’s approaching the title of mythical figure as the hours pass, it seems. These terms are relative to UConn fans, of course, who hold Walker as close to their heart as any player in program history.
That’s because he’s so vital to UConn continuing to play basketball late into March. To chasing a Final Four, which was a laughable notion at the start of this season. But the statistics alone prove Walker’s Big East tournament legacy — forget about his Connecticut one; that was etched months ago — secured. Most points in a Big East tournament, now that honor belongs to Walker, who’s put up 111 points in four games.
He demolished the standing record: Eric Devendorf’s 84 in 2009. Walker’s 111 is so efficient that it’s precedent-setting. His triple-ones aren’t just best in Big East history — they blow by any single-tournament scoring record in every conference’s record book. (Yeah, have to note this: Jimmer Fredette seems determined to challenge Walker, as he lit up New Mexico for 52 in BYU’s Mountain West semifinal.)
“The most valuable player in America, bar none, not even close,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. “Tell me the other guys who are getting 12 rebounds, six steals, assists, etc. It’s one of the great performances, certainly a player of mine, but I’ve never seen a guard dominate a game, inside and out.”
Since the five-games-in-five-days format is still a new one in the Big East tournament (and doesn't exist anywhere else), tomorrow’s numbers could be tagged with an asterisk, if you really wanted to be litigious.
Makes no difference. Walker’s lugged this team to a top-four seed, maybe better (definitely better if he and the Huskies win a Big East title), in the NCAAs and put himself amongst the names of the all-time Big East regular-season and tournament greats.
Big East basketball in Madison Square Garden in March is memorable in 2011 because of Kemba Walker. That's the basis here.
The last time a player had a run like this was Gerry McNamara, who fueled and fire and fought Syracuse to a Big East championship in 2006. He’s as revered at Syracuse as Walker will be five, 10, 15 years from now.
Friday night, in UConn’s 76-71 overtime win against Syracuse, Walker didn’t make any game-winning shots, but he did go for 33 points, 12 rebounds, 6 steals and 5 assists in the Big East semifinal. And as nice as those stats look, hitting a game-winning shot against the top-seeded team (Pitt), then beating your greatest rival a night later, and in overtime, exorcising extra-session demons in the process, that’s the big stuff. Remember (how could you forget?) that this win was some redemption for Connecticut, which slogged through six overtimes two years ago, only to come up short, falling 127-117.
“I don’t want to go into another six overtimes — know that,” Walker said. “I was mad when it went into the first overtime.”
There’s been a lot of talk about how UConn playing four games in four days, and now five games in five, can be a detriment to the team. Jim Boeheim predicted Walker wouldn't slow one bit after Syracuse won against St. John's Thursday night. He was right.Calhoun has no choice but to accept this format. And he doesn't let his team even approach the issue publicly. Play as well as they can as a team, but let Kemba get his biggest collegiate moment in his hometown. (Walker is from the Bronx.)
“No one’s bitching and moaning by the fact this is tough. We knew we needed it,” Calhoun said.
The added game is a bit overblown, anyway. The players would've been worked in weigh rooms or practice facilities anyway. And, again, Walker's got an ever-life battery in that chest. That the players can get tired, or this back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-bac
k run could have affects in the NCAA tournament ... Calhoun refuses to buy into that, though he did give up this nugget:
“He actually looked tired at the start of the game, not the end of the game, because that was winning time,” the Hall of Fame coach said about Walker.
As the game wore on, Walker grew thicker, deeper treads on his tires. Connecticut blew a six-point lead in the final minute, but this time, you couldn’t find an iota of a reason to put that on Walker. And in the extra five minutes, Walker was as vital to his team as ever, especially after Huskies forward Alex Oriakhi fouled out.
“I’d give them a day off tomorrow, but otherwise, we’d be practicing,” Calhoun said. “And they’d rather do a game. And so would I, to be honest.”
They get that game and one more chance to finish off an unpredictable, drama-filled season. Walker's so good, he makes you forget about all the trouble his coach and program have gotten into with the NCAA.
Walker’s a legend to Calhoun and his teammates because he turned his grades around and never let his head inflate.
“He never talks about the NBA. He only talks about us and his family,” Calhoun said.
Afterward, when the media horde had mostly died down and moved on to watch Louisville-Notre Dame or start filing their UConn-Syracuse stories, Walker slumped against the pale-white painted walls in the bowel of Madison Square Garden. He was eager for an ice bath and then a hotel bed. Before sauntering away, the most coveted man in Madison Square Garden cracked a joke.
“This is the most exhausting thing,” Walker said of the interview process. The horde is the one opponent he can't shake so easily. That's his own fault.
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