Walker, Oriakhi lead UConn domination
November, 25, 2010
By Chad Ford | ESPN.com
LAHAINA, Hawaii -- After a tournament filled with drama and close finishes, the championship game of the EA Sports Maui Invitational was a bit of a letdown.
Not that anyone from Connecticut was complaining.
UConn ran roughshod over ninth-ranked Kentucky on Wednesday, winning in convincing fashion 84-67 to claim a tournament title that seemed highly unlikely at the start of the week for a team picked to finish 10th in the Big East.
Once again it was Kemba Walker and Alex Oriakhi leading the charge for the Huskies. Walker had another big night with 29 points and six assists and Oriakhi was a beast on the front line, scoring 18 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking three shots.
Connecticut shot a scintillating 58 percent from both the field and the 3-point line. On the other hand, Kentucky received 24 points from sensational freshman Terrence Jones, but shot just 37 percent from the field as a team. UConn scored 42 points in the paint to Kentucky's 24 and outscored the Wildcats 16-5 on the break.
Quite simply, it was a domination -- and one that hardly a soul saw coming.
The win, in the eyes of the team, was clearly a validation of the UConn program and head coach Jim Calhoun, both of whom have come under increasing scrutiny lately.
AP Photo/Eugene TannerThe announcement of Kemba Walker as tournament MVP might've been the least suspensful moment of the week.
"We wanted to show the world we're still UConn and that Coach Calhoun can still coach a team," said Walker, the tournament's MVP after scoring 90 points in three games.
"The catalyst all three nights was these two guys," Calhoun said, pointing to Walker and Oriakhi. "I couldn't be prouder of the effort they put out.
"This isn't our season," he continued, "but it lets people know that we're still Connecticut. I respect the tradition -- the Kentuckys, the Indianas ... we are a part of that, though. That's why I'm still coaching."
As for Kentucky coach John Calipari, he noticed a stark difference between the two teams Wednesday night.
"That was a shellacking," Calipari said. "We were outplayed. We were outcoached. We were outhustled. We got really selfish in the first half. We took a lot of bad shots. I've got to do a better job of getting these guys to play together. We played against each other. They played for each other."
The game itself was tight until Jones picked up his second foul with 8:59 to go in the first half. Calipari, much to the chagrin of many UK fans, decided to sit Jones for the rest of the half and UConn went on a game-changing run -- at one point 21-2 -- and went into the half with a 50-29 lead.
Calipari defended the decision after the game: "I knew if he got a third foul, we had no chance. I just didn't think we'd be this selfish. We just took one bad shot after another."
Jones hit a couple of quick 3s at the start of the second half, but it wasn't enough to hold off the Huskies, who were relentless in pushing the ball up the floor and crashing the boards.
Highly touted freshman Brandon Knight struggled mightily in two of the three games Kentucky played here. In the title game, he shot 3-of-15 from the field, was 0-of-8 from beyond the arc and had five turnovers in the loss.
Calipari was clearly discouraged, but he wasn't giving up. His team is young and he knows it's going to take some time.
"We've had 22 days of practice and I have a brand-new team. We have holes. I need to do a better job of coaching [Knight]. These guys are 18 years old. They need to be coached. They reverted back to eight months ago. You know what was eight months ago? An AAU tournament."
After the game, the Connecticut players were understandably ecstatic. In a span of three days, a team counted out by most in the preseason beat the Missouri Valley favorite and a pair of teams ranked in the top 10.
And if there was one player that became the face of this remarkable UConn run, it was undoubtedly Walker.
A player many doubted could ever become a true star, Walker simply tore through this tournament. His 90 points were just three short of the tourney record. For the season, he's averaging 30.2 ppg, shooting 53 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3. He's averaging 4.2 apg, 2.1 spg and has been to the free throw line an amazing 44 times (converting 89 percent of those attempts).
It seems almost silly to talk about national player of the year honors this early, but if you can call someone a front-runner for the award in the first month, then Walker is the frontrunner.
Except, Calhoun observed, a funny thing has happened on the way to stardom. The man making all the headlines hasn't let it get to his head.
"The play toward the end of the first half when he could of had a 3 and instead threw down to a teammate for a layup," Calhoun said. "That's Kemba Walker."
A tournament championship and the MVP award weren't the only things that Walker won this week. He also earned a huge amount of respect from a group of skeptical NBA scouts. After the game, several of them said Walker will skyrocket up their draft boards.
"I was really surprised by how well Kemba played," one NBA scout told ESPN.com. "I've watched him closely for the past three years. I didn't think he could be this good. I came in thinking he's a late first-rounder, a decent backup. I've changed my mind. I'm not sure he's going to be a star [in the NBA], but I just love how he played here and how hard he's worked on his game. If he keeps this up all season, he's a top-10 pick."
Oriakhi should feel the same bump as well. Scouts raved about his toughness, energy and newfound confidence around the basket. Walker and Oriakhi were joined on the all-tournament team by Jones, Michigan State's Kalin Lucas and Chaminade's Steven Bennett.