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UConn’s focused on the Big East title, not the NCAA tournament


NEW YORK - Kemba Walker didn’t want Friday night’s Big East semifinal against Syracuse, which UConn won 76-71, to go into overtime.

Can you blame him?

Ignoring the fact that UConn blew a six point lead in the last 40 seconds of regulation, the kid has played 157 minutes of basketball in the last four days, including 85 in the past two games.

“Of course I didn’t want to go into another sixth overtime,” Walker said with a laugh after the game. “I was mad when it went into the first overtime. But I thought about the six-overtime game and I wanted to get the win in that first OT. I didn’t want to go into another one.”

Eventually, you would think he would get tired, right?

Because these aren’t easy minutes Kemba is playing. Every shot he takes he has to work for, whether its coming off of a screen or putting the ball on the floor. Nothing comes easy for him on the offensive end, not when he’s spent the majority of the season with the team resting squarely in the center of his diminutive shoulders. When he’s not scoring, he’s forced to defend one of an opponent’s best back court players. Hell, he even led the team in rebounding tonight.

“Tell me the other guys who were getting 12 rebounds, six steals and assists,” UConn head coach Jim Calhoun said after the game, ignoring the 33 points Kemba had on 9-18 shooting. “One of the greatest performances of any player of mine. I’ve never see a guard dominate a game inside and out.”

What Walker has done in this tournament is nothing short of spectacular. He’s already set the record for points scored in the Big East tourney with 111, breaking the old mark of 84 that Eric Devendorf set in 2009. When he scores his sixth point tomorrow night, he will break the all-time conference tournament record of 116 points held by Armon Johnson, who did it for Ohio last year in the MAC.

Regardless of what happens in Saturday’s final, Kemba has cemented his spot in Big East Tournament history.

The question that UConn must answer is whether, after becoming the first team in conference tournament history to play five games in five days, their team, and Kemba in particular, will have the energy to compete tomorrow night.

Alex Oriakhi, for one, isn’t worried about Walker.

“When we play pick up in the summer and we’re all tired, he’s still running around,” the Huskies center said after going for 15 points and 11 boards, including six huge offensive rebounds. “He’s like a little kid with tireless energy. Kemba, he’s just never tired.”

“He can’t get tired tomorrow. Its the championship.”

Tonight, however, you could see Kemba’s legs start to go late. Where he was able to get by his man early in the game, the Husky point guard didn’t have that extra burst down the stretch. The step back jumpers he was hitting all tournament? Those were coming up short in the second half.

“The only thing that surprised me is when he went to the interview he looked tired,” Calhoun said. “Not so tired at the start of the game but at the end of the game.”

When Kemba got tired in the second half, his teammates were there to pick him up. After being relatively non-existent for much of the game, freshman Jeremy Lamb made arguably the two biggest baskets of the game in overtime, knocking down a couple of floaters against the Syracuse zone that allowed UConn to hold on to their lead.

Regardless of what happens tomorrow, the talking point for the next week regarding the Huskies is going to be whether playing five games in the Big East Tournament is worth it. The amount of effort that the Huskies have expended this week has to have some effect on how they play during the NCAA Tournament.

For now, however, that isn’t what the Huskies are focused on. They are focused on winning in the here and now.

“To say you are the best team in the best conference, that speaks for itself,” Oriakhi said.

Walker agreed.

“Its the best collegiate tournament in the world,” Walker said. “Its big time. It would definitely help us out for seeding in the NCAA Tournament.”

“We want to win. We’re not going to play no games to lose. We want to go out and win.”

And if Kemba continues to play the way he has, there’s a good chance that happens. There is no half-ass in these Huskies. This is a group that has gelled as the season as gone along. This is a team that believes that they can beat anyone in the country. And they understand that in order to do that, they have to play with a reckless abandon. They have to outwork their opponents. They have to make the blue-collar plays. They have to win the 50-50 balls.

Not to be cliche, but they have to leave everything they have on the floor every night.

And their star is the guy that leads the charge, that sets the tone for the rest of the team.

“I think [Kemba]'s the M.V.P. on any college basketball team in America,” Calhoun said. “And I’m going to keep saying that because you’ve got a chance to witness what we have witnessed over the past 30-somewhat games.”

Did I mention he got 12 rebounds?

How did a point guard that is 6'0" of a good day manage that?

“He got a lot of long rebounds,” Oriakhi said with a laugh. “He wasn’t battling like I was.”

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.