- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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HOUSTON -- Kemba Walker's performance in the Maui Invitational title game against Kentucky on Nov. 24 was remarkable.
Walker scored 29 points and was 10-of-17 from the field, 3-of-4 on 3-pointers and 6-of-6 from the free throw line with 6 assists, 2 turnovers and 2 steals.
The Huskies won handily, 84-67, and were up 50-29 at halftime.
“Kemba scored at will,’’ said UConn coach Jim Calhoun. “I call that his most magical week. Everything he threw up went in.’’
Brandon Knight's effort for Kentucky was much more forgettable.
Knight scored six points and had five turnovers to match his five assists. He was 3-of-15 from the field and missed all eight 3-pointers he attempted. The freshman was playing on the big stage for the first time and it showed.
“I was just trying to find my way and I didn’t know what to expect out there, not knowing how to play,’’ said Knight.
Walker went on to lead an inexperienced UConn team to an improbable Big East tournament title, winning five games in five days. In the West Regional, the No. 3-seeded Huskies continued their incredible run as Walker led them past the likes of San Diego State and Arizona and into the Final Four in Houston. Other Walker heroics this season include decisive shots to beat Texas on the road, Villanova at home and Pitt in the Big East tournament.
Knight has settled into a leadership role for coach John Calipari. Kentucky won the SEC tournament over Florida and survived the toughest of the four regions, winning the East as a No. 4 seed. Knight hit the game winner to beat Princeton in the second round (former first round), hit the winning shot to beat top-seeded Ohio State in the Sweet 16, and then made five critical 3-pointers in a win over No. 2 seed North Carolina in the Elite Eight.
Now Knight and Walker meet again, in the headline national semifinal Saturday night at Reliant Stadium.
“You can tell how much he’s matured as a leader,’’ Walker said. “He’s playing great. If we contain him, we’ll be fine.’’
Calipari said it just took time for Knight to learn the system.
“It was a tough challenge for him,’’ said Calipari, who has coached a slew of exceptional point guards in consecutive years, from Derrick Rose to Tyreke Evans to John Wall to Knight.
But Knight won’t have to contend only with Walker. Calhoun said freshman guard Shabazz Napier shut down Knight in the second half of the game in Maui. That means Walker won’t have to worry about getting worn down on the defensive end.
The pressure will be on Knight to deal with Walker and Napier, but Walker clearly has more of Knight’s attention.
“I’ve just got to try and slow him down,’’ Knight said of Walker. “We know he’s going to do a great job of scoring and getting his teammates involved. We want to disrupt him a little bit.’’
Added Calipari: “They have the most dominant player in the tournament on their team. It’s like Danny Manning out there. We’ve got to make it hard for him to get 25.’’
It’s hard to say which team has an advantage here. Yes, UConn beat Kentucky handily in Maui, but you can’t compare that Wildcats team with the one here in Houston. It’s also hard to match what the Huskies have become since Maui, given the development of Napier and, more importantly, Jeremy Lamb, who has turned into the perfect sidekick for Walker.
Walker and Knight’s matchup should be a duel, but it may not determine the outcome of this game. The decisive factor may be rebounding. Even if that’s the case, you can be sure Walker and Knight will have the ball in their hands more than any other players on their respective teams. If there’s a signature play to be made, the ball will likely be in their hands.