ANAHEIM, Calif. — Like a veteran poker player, Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun knew he held the most prized card in the deck. He knew his slender guard, the one with a flair for the dramatic, could be the difference maker in a tight game between two athletic teams in Thursday’s West Region semifinal.
Walker scored 36 points — the second-highest total of his career — and looked like his usual unstoppable self after a second-half technical foul on San Diego State ignited his scoring punch. But it was Lamb who made the critical shot and the key defensive play to lift the third-seeded Huskies to a 74-67 victory over the second-seeded Aztecs.
Connecticut (29-9) advanced to play Arizona in Saturday’s region final.
With 1 minute 48 seconds to play and the Huskies holding a precarious one-point lead, Walker missed a contested shot near the basket. The rebound found the hands of Alex Oriakhi, who kicked the ball out to a wide-open Lamb. The three-pointer gave the Huskies some breathing room and quieted a crowd filled with San Diego State fans.
“Jeremy has no idea just how good he is,” Calhoun said. “He could be great.”
Then with 26 seconds left, San Diego State point guard D.J. Gay, who rarely commits a turnover, tried to throw an alley-oop pass toward the basket but underestimated the length of the 6-foot-5 Lamb, who jumped in the air and intercepted the ball. Lamb converted a game-sealing dunk on the other end.
In all, Lamb scored 24 points, making 9 of 11 field goal attempts, and proved to be the ideal complement to Walker’s lead act. Lamb said that if opponents “don’t throw two or three people at [Walker], he will make them pay. I get a lot of open shots.”
“By the way, that reach is 7-4,” Calhoun said of Lamb.
From winning the Big East tournament title with an historic run to reaching the Elite Eight, Calhoun has been overjoyed by the enthusiasm of his young team throughout the season. The nine freshmen and sophomores on the roster feed off of the unbridled energy and confidence of Walker, the team’s demonstrative leader. After being bodied and bumped for 31 minutes Thursday, it was a collision during a timeout midway through the second half that changed the game’s complexion.
With just more than nine minutes remaining, San Diego State held a four-point lead. But as both teams were headed toward their benches for a timeout, Walker collided with the right shoulder of San Diego State guard Jamaal Franklin and immediately fell to the floor.
A technical foul was called on Franklin, resulting in a chorus of boos from the crowd. According to Aztecs Coach Steve Fisher, official Tom O’Neill said Franklin bumped Walker. It was unclear from replays whether the contact was intentional or strong enough to cause Walker to fall to the court.
“The contact was definitely enough to go down,” Walker said. “That’s why I was able to get the free throws. I was on my way to the huddle, and he ran into me.”
Walker made the ensuing free throws and, in all, scored 14 of Connecticut’s next 16 points, including 12 straight. Fisher said his plan was to alternate defenders — guard Chase Tapley and forward Billy White — throughout on Walker. It yielded mixed results.
The athletic White, who has seven inches on Walker, had flustered Brigham Young’s Jimmer Fredette in the Mountain West tournament final, but he struggled to slow Walker.
“He’s just an amazing player,” White said. “He is almost unstoppable to stop. Our goal was to make him take tough shots and shoot over us.”
Gay sank a three-pointer to slice U-Conn.’s lead to one point with a little more than two minutes remaining. On their next possession, Gay opted against taking another three-pointer and instead passed to Kawhi Leonard, who missed an open three-pointer.
“I watched him measure that three,” Fisher said. “And I thought when he released it that it was going in.”
San Diego State (34-3) made just 7 of 22 three-point attempts and just 6 of 13 free-throw attempts.
The Aztecs saw their momentum slow early in the game when Leonard, who scored his team’s first four points, picked up a foul and then a technical foul in the game’s first four minutes. Fisher said that Leonard was talking to a Connecticut player, but noted that both players were exchanging words.
“We had two technical fouls,” Fisher said. “I am sure that will be a story line.”