NEW YORK (AP) — Jim Calhoun drew up a play in the Connecticut huddle that gave Kemba Walker two options for the final shot. He could either take it himself in the closing seconds against Pittsburgh, or kick it to Jamal Coombs-McDaniel if he was covered.
As soon as Walker put the ball on the floor, Calhoun knew which choice he’d made.
The star point guard used a crossover and shoulder roll to shuck his defender right to the ground, then stepped back and swished the winning basket at the buzzer, lifting the No. 21 Huskies to a 76-74 victory over the third-ranked Panthers in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament.
“The best player in my opinion for his team made another winning shot, a big-time shot,” Calhoun said. “There wasn’t any doubt in my mind what option it would be when he put the hard dribble down. Kemba has made a ton of big shots.”
Few bigger than this one.
The buzzer sounded just as the ball went through the net, and freshman Shabazz Napier was the first person to grab Walker by the waist and hoist him into the air. The Huskies calmed down quickly, though, making sure nobody got hurt in the scrum.
After all, there’s another game to play.
“Everybody was excited, you know? Coming into this game we’re the underdogs, everyone saying we’re going to lose,” Walker said. “But everyone stayed together, and we came out with this victory. Everyone was excited, so I guess they just jumped on me.”
The Huskies (24-9) have won three games in three days after a late-season slide sent them to the No. 9 seed in the Big East tournament. They’ll face No. 5 seed St. John’s or fourth-seeded Syracuse in the semifinals Friday night.
Walker finished with 24 points for the Huskies, his third straight tremendous performance at Madison Square Garden. The first-team All-Big East selection had 26 points in their opening win against DePaul, then scored 28 in a rout of Georgetown on Wednesday.
He was guarded part of the game by Ashton Gibbs in a matchup of elite guards.
Gibbs finished 10 of 13 from the field — including 6 for 7 on 3-pointers — and scored 27 points for the top-seeded Panthers (27-5), who led by 12 midway through the first half and still had the advantage most of the second half until Walker doomed them to their third loss in three tries with a double bye in the tournament.
Brad Wanamaker finished with 17 points and Nasir Robinson had 11 for Pittsburgh.
“We’ve got to use this as motivation,” Gibbs said. “This is something we wanted to win, we wanted to win all three crowns, that’s what we talked about all year — regular season, Big East and the NCAA tournament. We didn’t get this one, so that’s definitely motivation.”
Jeremy Lamb scored 17 points and Alex Oriakhi had 13 for the Huskies, including a critical putback off a miss by Walker with just more than a minute left.
The hoop gave Connecticut a 74-71 lead, but Gibbs got free off a screen and calmly drilled his sixth 3-pointer to knot it up with 47.9 seconds left.
Walker brought the ball up court and went right around Wanamaker to get an open look, but he left the jumper short and Coombs-McDaniel pulled down only his second rebound of the game. He quickly and alertly called timeout to set up the final shot.
Walker made it count.
“I had missed a shot and my teammates told me to just stay aggressive,” he said. “Everybody in the world knew that ball was coming to me. I wanted to take that shot.”
The Huskies played the second half without guard Roscoe Smith, who took an elbow to his face with 7:20 left before the break. He received eight stitches and was tested for a concussion, then spent the rest of the game on the bench.
Calhoun said he’s not sure whether Smith will be available in the semifinals.
“It was one of those games where Pittsburgh asks you, ‘How tough are you? If you’re tough enough, you can beat us,'” Calhoun said. “And we were tough enough today.”
Especially when it came to rebounding, the obvious strength of the Panthers.
They came into the game plus-11 in rebounding margin, by far the top mark in the Big East and among the best in the nation. Yet they were outrebounded 32-25 by some scrappy Huskies, including 17-9 on the offensive glass.
UConn also took advantage of 11 turnovers by converting them into 20 points.
“We played hard, but at the end we simply got beat at our own game. We got beat on the boards, it was clear and evident down the stretch,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “It’s something we’ll address as we get ready for the NCAA tournament.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.