- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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HARTFORD, Conn. -- Kemba Walker picked up his dribble, had no play and decided to do something he hadn’t done since he was a teenager in the Bronx.
He threw the ball up at the backboard, caught it and laid it in the bucket.
Walker has hit game-winning shots this season and scored more than 30 points seven times now, but never has he converted such a highlight in a college basketball game.
“I had never done that in a game,’’ Walker said. “I had seen Kobe and LeBron do it and at that moment it was my only play. The middle was wide open so I had to make a play.’’
But it was just one bucket amid his 13 field goals en route to a 31-point, 10-assist, seven-rebound effort for the Big East player of the year favorite in Wednesday night’s 78-70 victory over No. 9 Georgetown at the XL Center. He also turned it over just twice in 40 minutes of play.
As much as Walker struggled shooting the ball over the past few weeks, he seemed to erase any doubt that he is indeed the frontrunner for conference POY.
“He’s back,’’ said Walker’s father, Paul “Kenya” Walker. “I saw LeBron do that last night. I’ve seen Kobe do that all the time. [Kemba] has done that on the playground. And they throw him out, talk about that he’s not the best player in the nation. You see all these defenses out there? Just because he had two or three bad games, he’s out? No. He’s back, he’s back, tell them he’s back. Trust me, he’s back.’’
The discussion as to whether or not Walker was indeed the league’s best came about when he struggled during a stretch in which he went 5-of-16 at Marquette (0-5 from 3), 7-of-23 in a home loss to Louisville (2-10 from 3), 3-of-14 in a home loss to Syracuse (1-6 from 3), 7-of-19 in a win at Seton Hall and 4-of-16 in a blowout loss at St. John’s.
But Walker found his stroke against Providence Sunday night, scoring 22 points and making an efficient 7 of 10 shots, 3 of 4 from deep.
“I’m just having fun out there,’’ Walker said. “I had a big talk with [my dad] during my slump and got back to my old self. I just stopped thinking and had a good game.’’
Georgetown coach John Thompson III said that the Hoyas did a poor job defensively and didn’t help on the ball when Walker was coming to the hoop. Austin Freeman was just 4-of-13 from the field, but the Hoyas’ issue wasn’t on offense as Chris Wright made five 3s. The problems came while trying to stop the ball.
Walker had help again from Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, who despite averaging 4.1 points a game, had his second straight 20-plus scoring output on 8-of-11 shooting. He scored 25 against the Friars and 23 against the Hoyas.
Coombs-McDaniel and UConn coach Jim Calhoun haven’t always been on the same page, but the sophomore is buying into the total team concept now and it has paid off for him.
But the Huskies still need Walker in order to win these sort of games.
“He wasn’t making shots, but my belief in Kemba never wavered,’’ Calhoun said. “This was big for us.”
The Huskies desperately had to win this game to stay in the hunt for a double-bye in the Big East tournament. The top four only have to win three games in New York next month, instead of four. The loss snapped Georgetown’s eight-game winning streak as the Hoyas dropped to 9-5 in the league, two games behind second-place Notre Dame and a half-game ahead of a slew of teams. Louisville lost at Cincinnati on Wednesday and is now tied with UConn, St. John’s and Villanova for third at 8-5, but only one is going to get a first-round bye if Pitt, Notre Dame and Georgetown can hold the first three spots.
“”We’re in a fine place, but I can’t worry about it,’’ Thompson III said. “The margin is so thin in the Big East.’’
In the standings he’s right, with the difference between third and eighth just one game. But the margin for Big East player of the year probably isn’t as close as it appeared a week or two ago. This is still Walker’s to lose, as he proved once again on Wednesday night.