By Joseph White
WASHINGTON (AP) The Big East finally found a way to get a team into the round of 16 – by beating up on itself.
Kemba Walker scored 33 points and the conference that was supposedly so powerful at last put a member into the NCAA tournament’s regional semifinals Saturday night when Connecticut knocked off league foe Cincinnati 69-58.
Walker, despite a wrist injury that had him shaking his hand repeatedly late in the first half, scored 16 points over the final 10 minutes. The score was tied at 45 before UConn ended the game with a 24-13 run. One of the highlights: Walker’s steal and assist to set up Roscoe Smith’s dunk that pushed the lead to eight with 1:35 to play.
Walker finished 8 for 20 from the field and 14 of 14 at the free throw line in his 10th 30-point game of the season.
UConn (28-9), the No. 3 seed in the West regional, advanced to play second-seeded San Diego State in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday.
Rashad Bishop scored 22 points for Cincinnati (26-9), which become the seventh of the Big East’s record 11 NCAA tournament teams to be eliminated. Another one will exit Sunday when Marquette plays Syracuse in the East regional.
UConn will join the Marquette-Syracuse winner and possibly Notre Dame (which plays Florida State on Sunday) as the conference’s only teams to advance to the round of 16.
The loss brought to a close a Cincinnati season in which the school completed a long road to return to the NCAAs six years after the messy departure of longtime coach Bob Huggins. The Bearcats won their opening NCAA game against Missouri on Thursday.
UConn has won seven straight, including an unprecedented five victories in five days to win the Big East tournament. The Huskies beat Bucknell in their opening NCAA game on Thursday.
Alex Oriakhi had 11 rebounds for the Huskies, who outrebounded the Bearcats 35-25. Jeremy Lamb added 14 points.
It was the first time in NCAA history two teams from the same conference have met this early in the tournament – a necessity because so many Big East teams made the field – and the familiar foes put on a competitive show, led by Walker and Bishop.
Walker had an adventurous game, to say the least. He scored the first six points in a 15-3 run that gave UConn a 24-20 lead, then he was sent crashing to the floor by Justin Jackson while attempting a fast-break layup.
Walker landed on his right side and immediately began shaking his right wrist, while Jackson was called for an intentional foul. Walker kept shaking his wrist throughout the rest of the first half and had the wrist taped when he emerged after the halftime break. He took the tape off during an early second-half timeout and showed no ill effects as he sank a smooth pull-up baseline jumper for the Huskies’ first points of the second half.
Walker also came up with a slight limp after getting fouled with 9:43 to play in the game with the score tied at 45. He stayed in the game to make both free throws, then hit a 3-pointer on the next possession to put UConn ahead by five. He later split a double team and sliced through a crowded paint for a layup that made it 52-47.
Cincinnati starter Ibrahima Thomas fouled out with 8:36 to play.
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