ANAHEIM, Calif. (Sports Network) – Connecticut won the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament and is headed to the Final Four for the second time in three years, but only after surviving two potential game-winning three-point attempts in the closing seconds to edge Arizona, 65-63, at Honda Center.
The matchup between UConn’s Kemba Walker and Arizona’s Derrick Williams lived up to the billing, with both superstars posting 20 points.
It was Walker, though, who drained a huge step-back jumper over Williams for a 65-60 lead with under 80 seconds to play. Jamelle Horne hit a three to get the Wildcats within two, then grabbed a rebound on Shabazz Napier’s errant trey.
After calling timeout with 18.2 seconds left, Arizona swung the ball over to Williams at the top of the key. He was long on his deep try, but Kyle Fogg secured the offensive rebound and kicked it back out to Horne.
Horne was off the mark from the right wing and the buzzer sounded, sending the third-seeded Huskies (30-9) to Houston for next weekend’s Final Four. They will face the winner of Sunday’s East Regional final — North Carolina vs. Kentucky.
Walker wasn’t particularly efficient from the field (7-of-17), but got some help from freshman Jeremy Lamb, who scored 12 of his 19 points in a back-and- forth second half.
UConn, which committed just five turnovers, has won nine straight since losing to Notre Dame in its regular season finale, including an unprecedented five wins in five days to win the Big East Conference Tournament.
“I’ve been fortunate over 39 years to have a lot of teams do a lot of different things but never could I imagine the team winning 9 games in tournament play in 19 days,” UConn head coach Jim Calhoun said. “This unique group of young guys have just given me a thrill beyond compare.”
Williams was also an uncharacteristic 5-of-13 for the fifth-seeded Wildcats (30-8), who had knocked off top-seeded Duke in the Sweet 16. Jesse Perry totaled 14 points and seven rebounds in the loss.
“You don’t have a feel of [the Huskies’] great poise and how they control the game until you’re playing against them,” complimented Arizona head coach Sean Miller. “We were in this game were and arguably a shot away from the Final Four, and that’s the bar at Arizona.”
Fouls from key contributors dictated the flow of the game. Williams played just seven minutes in the first half while picking up three fouls, and the Huskies had to sit their best interior defender during a key stretch in the second.
Alex Oriakhi was whistled for his fourth foul with 8 1/2 minutes remaining, and Williams took advantage with six points on an 8-0 run that put Arizona on top, 55-52.
Oriakhi was promptly subbed back in, and the Huskies came alive offensively with 10 straight points to regain the lead. Lamb put in consecutive jumpers to start the run and ended it by picking off Williams’ lazy pass at the top of the key and going in for a slam with 3:08 to play.
“I started off the game missing a lot of shots … But late in the game they saw I could take my [defender], so they ran a couple of plays for me and I was able to hit some big shots,” said Lamb, who ended 7-of-19 from the field.
Williams stopped the run with two free throws, and Fogg hit a three-pointer to pull Arizona within 63-60 prior to Walker’s patented jumper from the top of the key.
Arizona jumped out to an 18-10 lead near the midway point of the first half before Williams picked up his second foul and had to sit on the bench.
Not coincidentally, Connecticut scored 12 of the next 14 points to take the lead, 22-20, on a Lamb three-pointer.
Miller put Williams back in the game with 6 1/2 minutes left and had to bench him less than a minute later after he committed his third foul. UConn continued to expose the absence of the Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year, and led 32-25 at halftime thanks to a late three from Walker, who had missed his first five long-distance tries.
The Wildcats trailed Duke at the half on Thursday before outscoring the Blue Devils by 22 in the final 20 minutes. They looked poised to duplicate the feat Saturday, as Perry scored six straight points and Fogg hit a three to suddenly tie the game, 34-34, less than five minutes into the second half.
A Williams jumper a little later gave Arizona a one-point lead, but unlike Duke, Connecticut fought back with eight consecutive points, going up 44-37 on a Walker free throw with 12 1/2 minutes showing.
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