NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — When Kemba Walker led UConn back into a very hostile gym for the second half of its eighth game in 17 days, Jim Calhoun wondered whether this frenetic March run finally had drained the fight out of his team.
With resilience and brilliance to spare, these Huskies just keep thrilling their veteran coach — and their lead dog is turning into the biggest star of the NCAA Tournament.
Walker scored 22 of his 36 points in the second half of yet another dynamic postseason performance, driving UConn through a tight second half Thursday night for a 74-67 victory over second-seeded San Diego State in the West regional semifinal.
Freshman Jeremy Lamb tied a season high with 24 points as the third-seeded Huskies (29-9) advanced to face fifth-seeded Arizona on Saturday.
After making a regional final for the 10th time by ending the best season in San Diego State history, UConn will go after its fourth trip to the Final Four — much to the pleasant surprise of a coach who thought he had seen everything.
“This run has been sensational, and I haven’t yet been able to put it in perspective,” Calhoun said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better gift than this team, and then we get this. I don’t remember anything quite like this. This is different. This team genuinely believes in themselves and each other. I hate to say this, but this is an old-fashioned team.”
With a newfangled scoring star who doesn’t allow his 6-foot-1 stature or his opponents’ defense to stop him.
Walker scored 12 consecutive points down the stretch in his duel with Aztecs point guard D.J. Gay. He hit four 3-pointers, led the Huskies in assists and even drew a momentum-killing technical foul out of Jamaal Franklin by falling to the court when the two bumped shoulders on the way to their benches with 9:19 to play.
Walker wasn’t hurt, and he certainly wasn’t tired.
“I’m just trying to do the best I can do,” Walker said. “Whether it’s scoring, talking, getting their confidence up or giving an assist, I’m just trying to do whatever is possible to enhance this team.”
UConn has been streaking ever since its regular season ended with four losses in five games. Walker, their fearless playmaker from the Bronx, drove them to the Big East tournament title with five wins in five days.
The Huskies then knocked off Bucknell and Cincinnati in the first two NCAA rounds to earn a trip into the backyard of the Aztecs (34-3), who hadn’t lost to anybody but BYU all year long.
“We won five games in five days in the Big East tournament, and everybody said we were going to be tired,” Walker said. “After that, everybody said it was going to affect us in the second and third round of the tournament, and it hasn’t yet. We’re playing great basketball as a team. We have something huge in front of us, and we’re not going to let fatigue beat us. We’re going to overcome it.”
Lamb hit a clutch 3-pointer with 1:43 left for the Huskies, who beat the Aztecs and a building full of hostile fans just 90 minutes from San Diego.
“I’ve never been in an environment like this,” said Lamb, perfect on three 3-pointers. “Kemba hit some big shots, I hit some big shots, and we were able to pull it out. They had a lot of fans. I’ve never played in a game like it.”
Gay scored 16 points for the Aztecs, whose balanced veteran lineup couldn’t corral Walker long enough to take a late lead. Kawhi Leonard had 12 points and nine rebounds, but got an early technical foul and never dominated inside, while Billy White added 14 points.
“When your season comes to a screeching halt, like it will for every team with one exception, it hurts,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. “It should hurt, regardless of when, where and how. For our team this year, for what they’ve accomplished, it hurts exponentially more. I could not be more proud of how we competed, how hard we played, and unfortunately we came up a bit short.”
Thousands of San Diego State fans who sold out every home game on campus this season turned Honda Center into Montezuma Mesa North, singing along to their favorite pep band songs and thoroughly drowning out UConn’s cross-country travelers.
But the West Coast vibe suits the Huskies, who also came out of this region during their runs to the 1999 and 2004 national titles, along with their trip to the 2009 Final Four.
Walker scored 14 points in the first half to stake UConn to a 36-27 lead during a 19-5 run. Walker’s layup put UConn up 40-32 early in the second half, but the Aztecs finally remembered they’re bigger and taller than the Huskies, repeatedly using their advantages to set up open shots while keeping Walker’s teammates from getting comfortable.
“Both teams fed off each other,” Gay said. “When one team threw a punch, the other team threw a punch, back and forth. … Starting the second half, we were down, and there was a need for me to get more aggressive offensively. We tried to speed the tempo up, get more guys open shots, but it didn’t work out.”
Back-to-back buckets put San Diego State up 53-49 midway through the second half, but Walker’s savvy stopped the rally cold.
After Franklin made a steal and fed White for a layup, Franklin and Walker exchanged a little trash talk. On the way back to their benches moments later, Franklin and Walker bumped shoulders — and Walker went crashing to the floor, drawing a technical foul and hitting both free throws.
“The contact was definitely enough to go down,” Walker said with a grin.
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