NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — After carrying UConn to the Big East title, Kemba Walker decided to get his teammates involved in the Huskies’ NCAA tournament opener against Bucknell.
It was a move that earned him a place in the school record book.
Walker had a career-high 12 assists, scored 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds to lead No. 3 seed Connecticut to an 81-52 victory Thursday night.
Roscoe Smith scored 17 and Jeremy Lamb added 16 for the Huskies (27-9), who showed no signs of fatigue after winning five games in five days last week to claim the Big East title. Connecticut led by 17 points at halftime and upped the margin to 32 with just over 15 minutes left.
The Huskies will face the winner of Thursday night’s West regional game between Cincinnati and Missouri.
The Bison (25-9) did everything they could to prevent Walker from beating them with his sweet jumper and knifing moves to the basket. They often double-teamed the 6-foot-1 junior guard, leaving him no choice but to pass the ball.
Walker did just that, with unprecedented success: His 12 assists were a UConn record for an NCAA tournament game.
“For a lot of these kids, everybody really except for Kemba, no one else had meaningful NCAA minutes,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. “So Kemba, who’s been our scorer, became our initiator. He made some big baskets, but his biggest contribution was controlling the game on the offensive end.”
The Huskies made 32 baskets, and Walker was involved in more than half of them (12 assists, five field goals).
“I just took whatever they gave me,” Walker said. “I just told the guys to be ready, and they were. They made the shots.”
After averaging 26 points a game in the Big East tournament, Walker assumed the role of playmaker against Bucknell — much to the delight of his teammates.
“I like Kemba the assist man, so I can score some more,” center Alex Oriakhi said with a grin. “He definitely did a good job of not forcing the issue. Every time he came off a pick, he had two guys on him. They didn’t know we have other guys on the team that can score as well. He made them pay.”
Walker got the school record for assists on a fast break, leading the pack before dropping a pass back to Oriakhi, who capped the play with a dunk.
Mike Muscala scored 14 for 14th-seeded Bucknell. The Patriot League champions came in with a 10-game winning streak and on a 19-1 roll, but proved no match for Connecticut’s quickness, size and athleticism.
Bucknell was outrebounded 49-23 and got only one offensive rebound.
“It was tough, especially on the glass,” Bucknell forward Bryson Johnson said. “They are bigger than us at every position.”
There was also the matter of trying to stop Walker.
“He’s a great player, great quickness and he’s a scorer, a great scorer,” Bison guard Darryl Shazier said.
Walker had assists on three of the Huskies’ first eight baskets, and at halftime had as many assists as points (6).
Walker’s unselfish play enabled Calhoun to become the sixth coach to earn 850 wins at the Division I level. He is 850-367, including 41-13 in the NCAA tournament.
“Their choice was simply Kemba Walker is not going to beat us,” Calhoun said. “But he did. He beat you by making other people better. And that’s the key.”
Walker’s first points came at the foul line with 10:42 left in the first half, part of a 13-5 spurt that put Connecticut up 27-17. After Johnson connected from long range for Bucknell, Walker and Smith hit short jump shots, Lamb drilled a 3-pointer and Walker scored off a steal for a 36-20 lead.
Shabazz Napier sank a 3-pointer for the Huskies to complete the 12-0 run, and Connecticut led 39-22 at the break.
In the second half, the Huskies peeled off 15 straight points to make it 57-25 with 15:05 to go.
Two rebounds short of a triple-double, Walker left the game with 3:47 remaining to a standing ovation from Huskies fans in the section behind the Connecticut bench.
Can anyone stop Kemba? Sound off in the comments below…
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