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Saturday, April 2, 2011
Rapid Reaction: UConn 56, Kentucky 55

By Eamonn Brennan

HOUSTON -- From the moment Kemba Walker took the floor at the Maui Invitational in November, we've spent this season in awe of Walker's ability, of Jim Calhoun's fire, of the Connecticut Huskies, who took the prospect of a down year, stomped it into oblivion and never looked back.

We'll end it that way, too.

Led by another comprehensive effort from Walker and buoyed by supporting performances from Shabazz Napier, Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith and Alex Oriakhi, the Huskies have taken another step toward a national title. UConn topped Kentucky 56-55, and although the score is a bit deceptive -- a final last-ditch shot by UK guard Brandon Knight counted, but didn't affect the outcome -- the game really was that close.

The Huskies were helped by some brutal shooting by Kentucky. The Wildcats picked the wrong time to have one of their worst shooting performances of the season, including a 4-of-12 effort from the free throw line that was the second-worst of all-time in a Final Four game (minimum five attempts). But give UConn much of the credit. The Wildcats just kept coming and coming, and, much like their occasionally maligned coach, the Huskies fought off those advances, found a way to make the key plays and came away with the win in the final seconds.

If teams take on the personality of their coaches, then the best way to describe the 2011 Connecticut Huskies is resilient. Calhoun is. They are. And they're playing in the national championship because of it.

Turning point: The first true turning point came at the start of the second half. That's when Kentucky's shooters finally started finding nylon, and the Wildcats erased UConn's 10-point halftime lead within the first six minutes of the second. The run created an every-possession-counts slugfest down the stretch. With less than five minutes remaining, a pair of huge defensive stops by Oriakhi and Walker allowed the Huskies to build a narrow four-point lead. From there, although Kentucky was never more than a possession or two away, it was never in command of the game.

Key player: Walker. Even if this wasn't a vintage Kemba game -- he shot 6-for-15 and had four turnovers -- he still posted 18 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists and scored big buckets in key spots. He also forced Kentucky to focus on him at all times on ball screens and curls, and he made a handful of crucial defensive plays to steer his team toward a win down the stretch. Perhaps the biggest stop of the day came on Kentucky's penultimate possession, when Walker locked up Knight and forced DeAndre Liggins into an ill-advised final 3-pointer.

Key stat: Kentucky's shooting. This season, the Wildcats averaged 40.0 percent from 3, the seventh-best mark in all of college basketball. Saturday night, Calipari's team went 9-of-27 from 3 (the 27 attempts was a season-high), including a 2-for-12 mark in the first half that doomed UK to playing catch-up for the rest of the game.

What's next: The national championship game versus the Butler Bulldogs. Lame sports pun or not -- Huskies, Bulldogs, get it? -- Monday night's national title matchup is going to be a dogfight. Let the countdown to No. 1 begin.