ANAHEIM, Calif. — As his players pranced around the court carrying celebratory T-shirts, 68-year-old Jim Calhoun slowly ambled toward his star, Kemba Walker, flashed a wide smile and wrapped him in a giant bearhug.
Third-seeded Connecticut’s 65-63 win over fifth-seeded Arizona in Saturday’s West Region final earned Calhoun his fourth trip to the Final Four. He may have coached teams more talented, including national champions in 1999 and 2004, but he says he has never coached a team more resilient and has never experienced a feeling quite like the one he had Saturday night at Honda Center.
“This unique group of guys gave me a thrill beyond compare,” Calhoun said, later adding that “this is the most unusual group of young guys that I have ever been around. I have never seen a team do what these guys have done.”
All the Huskies did was win their ninth consecutive tournament game in 19 days, dating from the Huskies’ historic five-wins-in-five-days march through the Big East tournament.
What makes this tournament run even more satisfying for Calhoun is that the Huskies were not on anyone’s radar before the season (they were unranked) and accomplished the feat with a team that plays five freshmen.
“The expectation was to make the NCAA tournament,” said Calhoun, whose team missed the NCAA tournament last season.
Arizona (30-8) could have reached its first Final Four since 2001 had one shot been made in the closing seconds.
Trailing by two with 18.2 seconds left, the Wildcats had a chance to tie or win the game. Derrick Williams, Arizona’s star who had carried the Wildcats through much of the tournament, missed a semi-open three-pointer from the top of the circle.
When Horne released the shot, Walker recalled saying “game-time!” because, for an instant, he thought the shot would beat his team.
“Everything was in slow motion,” Walker said. “I was so nervous when he shot that.”
Connecticut clinched a berth in the Final Four with a hand from Walker, who scored a team-high 20 points, and with a very big hand from freshman Jeremy Lamb, whose continued emergence has given the Huskies a formidable complement to Walker’s lead act.
Lamb scored 19 points, turned a critical steal into a breakaway basket in the second straight game and became the No. 1 scoring option late in the game.
That’s when Walker told the team in the huddle, “Let’s get the ball to Jeremy.”
“He’s got ice water in his veins,” Connecticut associate head coach George Blaney said. “I don’t think he knows he is in the West Regional.”
Lamb’s father, Rolando, played for Virginia Commonwealth and beat Calhoun’s Northeastern team with a buzzer-beater in the 1984 NCAA tournament. The younger Lamb now has played a key role in helping Calhoun advance to another Final Four.
“His shot that beat us,” Calhoun said of Rolando, “I told him that he owed me one, and he certainly has. He has paid me back ten-fold.”
Every time Connecticut has reached the Final Four, it has emerged from the West Region. But this time, the Huskies had to play what amounted to a road game against the Wildcats.
Former Connecticut standout Emeka Okafor, who was here to watch the Huskies, said, “This was just like Tucson here.”
And the Arizona fans nearly had reason to celebrate at the end, although they had some rough stretches early.
After making game-saving plays in the first two rounds and carrying his team with 25 first-half points in Thursday’s region semifinal against Duke, Williams confronted his toughest defender Saturday: foul trouble. The standout from nearby La Mirada, Calif., played just seven minutes in the first half after his second and third fouls — both touch fouls — drew the ire of a pro-Arizona crowd.
But in the end, Connecticut’s players were talking destiny. How else to explain the turnaround amid adversity?
The Huskies last reached the Final Four in 2009 — Walker’s freshman year — but it has been a long 24 months in Storrs, Conn.
The program and Calhoun received NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations. Calhoun has had personal adversity, missing nine games last season with an undisclosed illness and mourning the deaths of his best friend and sister-in-law in recent months.
For now, though, the Huskies are thinking positive.
“I think we are destined to win this thing,” Walker said. “I think it is meant to be.”