HOUSTON (AP) – When it’s win or go home, nobody’s better than Kemba and the kids.
Kemba Walker scored 18 points Saturday night to lift Connecticut to its 10th straight victory since finishing off a .500 regular season, a 56-55 win over cold-shooting Kentucky that moved the Huskies a victory away from their third, and most improbable, NCAA title.
Walker, a quick-handed junior from the Bronx, added seven assists to help UConn (31-9) extend a winning streak that started with a five-wins-in-five-nights leg-drainer at the Big East tournament and now includes five more at the tournament that really counts.
The third-seeded Huskies – lowest seed left in a tournament that has been as unpredictable as any in history – will face No. 8 Butler, a 70-62 winner over 11th-seeded VCU in the first semifinal, on Monday.
“We’ve got a heck of a challenge on Monday night, but the fact that we’re playing Monday night, that’s beautiful,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said.
This one was not pretty on either end.
Fourth-seeded Kentucky (29-9) shot 33.9 percent for the game and went 5:39 without a point late in the second half. UConn wasn’t much better, but Walker, Alex Oriakhi and Shabazz Napier all made baskets to turn a 48-48 tie into a 54-48 lead with 2:29 left.
DeAndre Liggins made a 3-pointer for the Wildcats to cut the deficit to three, and Kentucky had its chances. But Brandon Knight, one of John Calipari’s three sensational freshmen, barely drew iron on a 3-pointer. After Kentucky got the rebound, Liggins drew a foul but only hit one of two free throws.
Kentucky forced one more turnover and went for the win, but this time, it was Liggins whose 3-pointer was short. Napier made two free throws to make it 56-52, then Knight ended the game with a 3-pointer at the buzzer – a meaningless make and a cruel close to what has otherwise been a remarkable season for Calipari and Co. – Kentucky’s first trip to the Final Four since winning it all in 1998.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Walker said. “It’s a little surreal right now, but hopefully we can bring it back to Storrs.”