HOUSTON (AP) — When it’s win or go home, nobody’s better than Kemba and the kids.
Kemba Walker scored 18 points Saturday night to lift Connecticut to its 10th straight victory since finishing off a .500 regular season, a 56-55 win over cold-shooting Kentucky that moved the Huskies a victory away from their third, and most improbable, NCAA title.
Walker, a quick-handed junior from the Bronx, added seven assists and six rebounds to help UConn (31-9) extend a winning streak that started with a five-wins-in-five-nights leg-drainer at the Big East tournament and now includes five more at the tournament that really counts.
The third-seeded Huskies — lowest seed left in a tournament that has been as unpredictable as any in history — will face No. 8 Butler, a 70-62 winner over 11th-seeded VCU in the first semifinal, on Monday.
“We’ve got a heck of a challenge on Monday night, but the fact that we’re playing Monday night, that’s beautiful,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said.
This one was not pretty on either end.
Fourth-seeded Kentucky (29-9) shot 33.9 percent for the game and went 5:39 without a point late in the second half. UConn wasn’t much better, but Walker, Alex Oriakhi and Shabazz Napier all made baskets to turn a 48-48 tie into a 54-48 lead with 2:29 left.
DeAndre Liggins made a 3-pointer for the Wildcats to cut the deficit to three, and Kentucky had its chances. But Brandon Knight, one of John Calipari’s three sensational freshmen, barely drew iron on a 3-pointer. After Kentucky got the rebound, Liggins drew a foul but only hit one of two free throws.
Kentucky forced one more turnover and went for the win, but this time, it was Liggins whose 3-pointer was short. Napier made two free throws to make it 56-52, then Knight ended the game with a 3-pointer at the buzzer — a meaningless make and a cruel close to what has otherwise been a remarkable season for Calipari and Co. — Kentucky’s first trip to the Final Four since winning it all in 1998.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Walker said. “It’s a little surreal right now, but hopefully we can bring it back to Storrs.”
Speaking of amazing, UConn is peaking at the right time. The Huskies, a freshman-filled team that lived down to expectations by going 9-9 in their conference, haven’t lost since they fell to Notre Dame to close the regular season on Feb. 5.
UConn wasn’t nearly as dominating here in Houston as in its 84-67 victory over Kentucky in November at the Maui Invitational. But a win’s a win, and nobody does it better than UConn when it’s all-or-nothing. Counting that relatively low-key get-together on the island, the Huskies are 13-0 in tournament games this season.
Walker is the sparkplug for Calhoun’s team. Kentucky did a decent job containing him with its zone, which forced the Huskies to be more patient and look for second options. Jeremy Lamb was the most obvious one. Lamb, whose father Ronaldo made a game-winning shot to knock Calhoun out of the tournament when he was coaching at Northeastern in 1984, had 12 points, including a fancy scooping layup with 2:29 left to put the Huskies ahead by six.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)