UConn recovery following a familiar script
March, 7, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com
NEW YORK -- Kemba Walker might not be walking through the Madison Square Garden doors again for UConn, but his mother already has.
And for UConn fans looking for a reason to believe Huskies lightning can strike twice in New York, that’s like finding a lucky rabbit's foot in a field of four-leaf clovers.
A year ago, Andrea Walker was as easy to spot as her son’s megawatt smile, sitting front and center on the baseline in Kemba’s jersey.
New year, no Kemba, but there was Andrea, standing around a concession-area table with other UConn parents.
She was wearing Kemba’s jersey.
And so far the Huskies, a team that had all the rhythm of a polka played on an electric guitar in the regular season, are 2-for-2 in this tournament. They beat West Virginia 71-67 in overtime on Wednesday to advance to the quarterfinals against top-seeded Syracuse.
Coincidence? We shall see.
Cal Sport Media/AP PhotoShabazz Napier had a team-leading 26 points and six assists in UConn's win over West Virginia.
For now, UConn is busy rewriting its seasonal script.
There is no better cure for what ails a horrific season than March, the ultimate redo for teams who shoulda and coulda their way through the regular season but didn’t. That’s exactly what coach Jim Calhoun charged his team to do this week: Erase the slate.
Before every new game, Huskies coaches put up a number, counting off the season’s games.
On Tuesday, Calhoun reset the number to one.
"I said, 'Look around, new season. The old one is done,'" Calhoun said. "Yesterday was No. 1, today was No. 2 and tomorrow is No. 3. This is the wild, wild West and you all know how crazy it can be."
So crazy that a team that looked like it was going to be eaten alive on the offensive glass can instead win by blocking shots in the end.
West Virginia had nearly as many offensive rebounds (21) as the Huskies had total boards (30). Yet in the end, it was blocks from Alex Oriakhi and Andre Drummond that preserved the victory and should, once and for all, remove the Huskies from the bubble and into the NCAA tournament.
"I'm not going to politic," said Calhoun, who then went on and did just that, arguing that despite just now getting their 20th win, the Huskies have "played some people, folks."
Bob Huggins wasn’t so shy about his stance.
The West Virginia coach minced no words when asked if he thought his team belonged in the Big Dance. "We’ve done all they've asked us to do," he argued, pointing out that the Mountaineers won nine games against teams with an RPI of 50 or better and eight more against the top 100.
One more, of course, would have helped.
Instead, the Mountaineers, in their final game as a Big East member institution, blew what was once an 11-point lead to go down their John Denver country road from New York to Morgantown for the last time.
Thanks to an $11 million buyout, WVU, Huggins, his warm-up shirt and the rifle-shooting Mountaineer will debut next season in the Big 12.
"It's been a good run, most of it anyway," said Huggins, who after defeat doesn’t traffic so much in nostalgia. "There’s nothing like coming to the Garden."
Certainly, UConn can attest to that. Though the Huskies are anxious to pen a new storyline here, it is impossible to not make the connection to last season as the week wears on.
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesJim Calhoun's Huskies are trying to atone for a lackluster regular season with another run through the conference tournament.
Here’s the difference: These Huskies are technically more talented. Remember, this is a team that was a preseason top-five pick based not on last season's results but this season’s expectations. They added Drummond late and Ryan Boatright later, in conjunction with returning stars Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb. This team, at least on paper, is as talented a team as you’ll find in the conference.
What has been missing has been chemistry and gumption and, as Napier memorably called out midseason, heart.
The Huskies who took the floor against West Virginia showed flashes of all that. It wasn’t constant. The first 30 minutes, Oriakhi and Drummond got beat up; the middle 15, Lamb disappeared.
But it was there. There when Napier channeled his inner Kemba, scoring nine of UConn’s final 13 points to force overtime. And there again in overtime, after Napier fouled out, when the missing Lamb popped off a screen and, without blinking, drained a 3-pointer from the wing that sealed the win.
"You know we’ve been through a lot this season, not having Coach, not really understanding the chemistry, not really understanding the leadership, and sometimes we questioned our heart and how we played," Napier said. "At the end of the day, Coach told us we’ve got to lock up this game. We have nothing to lose, so why not go out there and give it your all?"
If you had asked people in November about a potential Syracuse-UConn matchup in the Big East tournament, they would have relished such a game.
For the final.
Instead when the two meet in Thursday’s quarterfinal, the Huskies will be the sizable underdog -- in deference to both UConn’s underachievement and the Orange’s success.
But is the impossible really impossible?
"It’s not impossible," Napier grinned, "because we did it."
Andrea Walker can attest. She was there.
And here she is again.