ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The brim of the Final Four hat was pulled down over Kemba Walker's tired eyes, but he perked up at one particular question.
Was it a motivating factor this year that the Big East coaches had picked Connecticut to finish ninth in their preseason poll?
“Tenth,” Walker said, correcting the reporter.
UConn, an inexperienced team led by an inspired scoring guard and an embattled Hall of Fame coach -- who made sure his players knew few thought they would be a top team -- is off to Houston after beating Arizona 65-63 in the West Regional final Saturday.
The third-seeded Huskies, 9-0 in the past 19 days, embraced one another on the Honda Center floor after two Arizona 3-point attempts missed in the final seconds. The celebration capped off their ninth straight win since the start of a Big East tournament title run -- a streak that gave them momentum and renewed confidence after limping into New York with an 1-4 close to the regular season.
What motivated them to reach a fourth Final Four under Jim Calhoun was that people doubted the mere possibility. “That became the theme,” said Calhoun, who also dealt with an NCAA investigation into prior recruiting violations this season. “I let them know every single day.”
Walker was named the Most Outstanding Player of the regional after scoring 20 points and dishing out seven assists Saturday. He didn’t have his best shooting performance (7-for-17), and quite possibly his best move was encouraging the team to feed the ball to freshman Jeremy Lamb.
“He looked at Jeremy and said, ‘And you’ll make those shots, too,’” Calhoun said.
After fifth-seeded Arizona came back from a seven-point halftime deficit to take a 55-52 lead, Lamb scored six of his 19 points as part of a 10-0 UConn run -- capped by his steal and dunk. Together, Lamb and Walker have scored 70 percent of Connecticut's points during the NCAA tournament.
“He answered the bell personally after our run,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He made it look easy. The fact that he had 19 hurt way more than Kemba having 20.”
Derrick Williams scored 20 points despite playing only seven first-half minutes due to his three personal fouls, and had a chance to win the game. A 60 percent 3-point shooter, Williams missed a 3 with seven seconds left. “I was open,” Williams lamented. The shot could be the final attempt of his college career if the sophomore sensation leaves for the NBA draft.
“I was nervous,” Walker said. “Derrick’s been on fire the whole tournament. It was a clean shot.”
Kyle Fogg, who had spent the game chasing around Walker on defense, corralled the rebound and fed the ball to Jamelle Horne in the corner. Horne, the Wildcats’ lone senior, missed from beyond the arc as well, and the final buzzer sounded.
“The second one I definitely thought was going in,” Lamb said.
UConn, which starts three freshmen and a sophomore alongside Walker, won this game not with an eye-popping performance from the national player of the year candidate, but as a team. Lamb showed so much poise that Walker deferred to him. Alex Oriakhi provided a formidable inside presence with seven points and six rebounds. And freshman Shabazz Napier came off the bench to score 10 points and grab four rebounds.
“All season I don’t think anybody expected us to get to this point,” said Walker, who was a freshman on the 2009 Final Four team. “It’s special.”
Miller said he could live with the result given that his team had two shots to win the game that just didn’t fall. The Wildcats, the Pac-10’s leading 3-point shooting team, were 4-for-21 (19 percent) from beyond the arc Saturday. They did reach the 30-win mark this season and Miller took a team that started three sophomores just one bucket away from the Final Four.
“For us to be one of the last teams standing, a lot of people want to be in our shoes, and we got here,” Arizona point guard Lamont Jones said. “It’s unfortunate that it has to end here, but the feeling of playing here is just a great feeling. It’s something that you’ll always remember.”
Jones wrapped both arms around Walker, his former high school teammate in New York City, at the end of the handshake line. Sandwiched in there was Arizona assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson, who was Walker’s AAU coach and had done all he could to game plan against his former player.
In the end, it was Calhoun who had the winning formula. His team made an early statement by winning the Maui Invitational despite the doom and gloom that many predicted in the preseason. The Huskies then endured a Big East season that left them tied for ninth in the standings, all the while waiting for, and accepting, an NCAA punishment that included probation and a three-game conference suspension for Calhoun next season.
Now they’re off to Houston after compiling a hard-to-fathom 12-0 record in tournament games this season (Maui, Big East, NCAA).
“A good friend of mine once said, ‘I don’t mind fighting you in an open space, but I hate to put you in a corner,’” Calhoun said. “If I take something personally, I’m going to do everything humanly possible to make sure your perception is wrong. These kids allowed that to happen.”