HOUSTON — When Kentucky Coach John Calipari looked at Connecticut’s Kemba Walker this week, he saw Danny Manning, the former Kansas star who carried the Jayhawks to the 1988 national title. “Danny and the Miracles” own a special spot in NCAA tournament lore.
But Walker is now one step away from authoring a compelling sequel. While not at his scintillating best offensively, the junior made plenty of plays large and small to help U-Conn. edge Kentucky, 56-55, in Saturday’s national semifinals at Reliant Stadium. The Huskies (31-9) will play Butler in Monday’s national title game.
Counted out by many after a late-season slide, U-Conn. moved within one game of the school’s third national title largely because of Walker, who has been an irrepressible force in 10 consecutive single-elimination tournament games, dating back to U-Conn’s run to the Big East tournament title.
The Wildcats were relatively pleased with their defensive job on Walker, even though he finished with a team-high 18 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds and 2 steals. As U-Conn. Coach Jim Calhoun said, Walker does not have to score to dominate a game.
“He was magnificent,” Calhoun said. “I think he was the difference maker in every game he has played this year.”
The game was not decided until Kentucky’s DeAndre Liggins missed a deep three-pointer — his team down two points — with two seconds remaining and U-Conn. guard Shabazz Napier extended the lead to four with two free throws.
But Calhoun said any number of plays, many made by Walker, decided the outcome. Midway though the second half, moments after a Kentucky player fell on Walker’s ankle, Walker shook off the pain and chased down Doron Lamb to block what appeared to be an open layup attempt.
“That block from behind might have been the difference,” Calhoun said. “To have the heart to chase him down and make that block is Kemba Walker.”
Despite almost always playing 40 minutes, Walker never says he is fatigued. But he admitted fatigue Saturday. And Calhoun thought Walker was fatigued much of the game because he did not have his usual lift in his jump shot. Toward game’s end, Calhoun asked Walker if he needed a 30-second rest. Walker was bent over — he was spent — and never answered.
“I kept playing him,” Calhoun said.
Napier’s contributions in the victory should not go unnoticed. The freshman made just 1 of 7 shots from the floor and turned over the ball three times, including one in the final minute, to give Kentucky a chance to tie or win the game. But he scored four of the most critical points of the game.
Napier extended U-Conn.’s lead to six points with a layup with 2 minutes 30 seconds left and then sank two free throws in the final two seconds to clinch the victory.
“It took a long time for me to get up there and shoot the free throws,” Napier said. “I thought [Kentucky] was going to try to call a timeout and try to ice me. I went up there with a lot of confidence. I told myself that I had to go redeem myself” after the turnover.
Kentucky did not help itself, missing several open shots throughout. The Wildcats shot just 33.9 percent from the field and made 4 of 12 free throws. Heartache at the free throw line has marked Calipari’s last two games in the Final Four, dating back to Memphis’s late-game collapse against Kansas in the 2008 national title game.
Some Kentucky players, including forward Josh Harrellson, said the magnitude of the moment overwhelmed the Wildcats in the first half because they had never played this deep in the tournament. U-Conn. at least had Walker, who played in the 2009 Final Four as a freshman.
When Liggins unleashed the potential game-winning three-pointer, Calipari said, “I was like ‘Please go in,’ because we were dying for much of the game.”
Now the Huskies will face a Butler team intent on rewriting the ending of last year’s national title game against Duke. If Butler wins, the Bulldogs will claim a special place in NCAA tournament history as the first true mid-major team to win the title since expansion to 64 teams in 1985.
But this title would also distinguish the Huskies if they win their third since 1999 behind an empowering, often overwhelming player like Walker. At this point, Walker said he doesn’t know what to make of the Danny Manning comparisons.
“Maybe it will all hit me,” Walker said, “when it is all said and done and we’re cutting down the nets.”