The Connecticut Huskies had every right to feel good about themselves after toppling five conference foes — four of them ranked — in a five-day span to win the Big East tournament championship.
Not a chance.
Connecticut (27-9) proved far too skilled, athletic and deep for the Patriot League champion and cruised past 14th-seeded Bucknell, 81-52, to set up a second-round meeting Saturday with Big East rival Cincinnati, seeded sixth.
“They didn’t know we have other players [besides Kemba Walker] on the team that actually score,” Connecticut center Alex Oriakhi said of Bucknell, alluding to teammates Roscoe Smith and Jeremy Lamb, who combined for 33 points on a steady diet of assists from the star guard. “We made ’em pay. We made ’em pay because they put so much attention on Kemba.”
Blanketed by Bucknell defenders, Walker played more like a point guard than a shooting guard, crisply distributing the ball to his teammates when his own shot was denied. Nonetheless, Walker still led the Huskies with 18 points while dishing out 12 assists (a program record for an NCAA tournament game) and grabbing eight rebounds.
“You gotta make choices,” Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun said, discussing each team’s tactics afterward. “Their choice was simply: Kemba Walker is not going to beat [us]. But he did. And he did it by making everybody around him better.”
Connecticut, the West Region’s No. 3 seed, played outstanding defense, as well, holding Bucknell to 31.4 percent shooting. And the Huskies dominated the boards, outrebounding the Bison 49-23.
Bucknell managed just one offensive rebound to Connecticut’s 13. The imbalance translated to 17 second-chance points for Connecticut; Bucknell had none.
The Bison’s fans had waited five years to cheer on their team in an NCAA tournament, and they descended on Washington slathered in orange and at full voice, chanting “I believe that we will win!” as they jumped up and down more than 15 minutes before tip-off.
Bucknell (25-9) was riding a feel-good tear of its own, having bounced back from a 2-6 start to win 23 of its 25 games since Dec. 1. Finally back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006, the Bison hoped to conjure the heroics of their 2005 NCAA tournament team, which toppled No. 3 Kansas in the opening round as a No. 14 seed.
But Bucknell’s lead was brief, evaporating after 5-3. And Calhoun didn’t relent until the Huskies led by 41, playing Walker a game-high 35 minutes.
Sophomore center Mike Muscala, the Patriot League player of the tear, led the Bison with 14 points.
Bucknell’s Bryan Cohen, the Patriot League’s two-time defensive player of the year, did a nice job on Walker early on. Cut off from the basket, Walker fed his teammates instead, and Connecticut jumped out to a 14-7 lead on three-pointers by Lamb, a reed-thin freshman guard, and Smith, a freshman forward from Baltimore.
And so it went, with Connecticut hitting from every point on the floor.
Bucknell’s offense, meantime, effectively shut down. The Bison were held scoreless for more than seven minutes as the first half wound down — a span that Coach Dave Paulsen said “seemed [to last] about 20 years.”
Muscala snapped the drought with 25 seconds left in the period. Connecticut took a 39-22 lead to the break, having held the Bison to eight field goals.
The Huskies quickly squelched any notion of a comeback, surging to a 55-25 lead less than five minutes into the second half. After Bucknell scored four points to pare the Huskies’ lead to 33, Calhoun sent Walker back out on the court following a brief respite.
Bucknell’s point total matched its lowest output of the season, and the 29-point margin of defeat was its biggest.
Said Paulsen, “It was a really bad way to end a terrific season.”