ANAHEIM, Calif. — Already, UConn has galvanized a state, captivated the sporting world, pieced together one of the more astonishing runs in college basketball history and even turned their 68-year-old Hall of Fame coach into a kid again.
These last four months truly have been the stuff of magic, a season of belief, friendship and rejuvenation that has sent just about everyone into splendid shock, one exhilarating moment at a time.
And then Saturday at the Honda Center, when UConn was on the brink of a basketball dream, Jim Calhoun watched anxiously and his players scrambled frantically as two potential Arizona three-pointers that could end it all sailed through the air.
Derrick Williams missed with seven seconds remaining. Jamelle Horne missed with two left.
The buzzer sounded. The backboard turned red.
The UConn players dashed across the court, and then danced into those dreams. The third-seeded Huskies answered every blow from the fifth-seeded Wildcats and hung on for a 65-63 victory in the West Regional final. A crowd of 17,856 began to file out as the Huskies cut the nets in celebration of a victory that produced as much pride as any in program history — including those that led to national championships in 1999 and 2004.
"These brothers, this unique group of young guys, have just given me a thrill beyond compare," Calhoun said. "Our march in the past nine games, I haven't experienced anything like it. Our resiliency … these kids have done this, it seems, day after day, found answers to win."
After the latest set of answers, all of them needed in a two-hour test of stamina, the Huskies (30-9) had won their ninth game in 19 days. And now they are in the Final Four for the fourth time. UConn will play the East Regional champion, either Kentucky or North Carolina, in a national semifinal Saturday in Houston. The national championship game is two days later, April 4.
Yes, the roller coaster from Storrs to Maui, through the rigors of Big East play, through the pages of history in New York, through Washington and then Anaheim, will end in Texas.
Some will call this a most improbable run to the Final Four. Not the Huskies, who lost four of five to close the regular season but then picked themselves up to defy odds.
"I didn't know what to expect when we played DePaul," Alex Oriakhi said of the Big East tournament opener March 8. "Everybody's confidence was down. But Coach said, 'I'm not going to quit on you guys. I'm not going to let you quit.' We've been playing our hearts out."
Walker, named the West Regional most outstanding player, had 20 points and seven assists. Jeremy Lamb, named to the all-Regional team, had 19.
Williams, also named to the all-Regional team, sat out much of the first half with foul trouble but was ferocious in the second, finishing with 20 points.
UConn won despite being outrebounded 42-31 (with 19 offensive rebounds by Arizona) and outscored in the paint, 34-22. The Huskies shot 41.1 percent, making just 5 of 17 three-pointers. But they made 14 of 18 free throws and held Arizona to 4-for-21 shooting on threes.
"One of the things I learned today coaching against UConn for the first time is that you can't underestimate their poise," Arizona's Sean Miller said.
The Huskies twice had nine-point leads, the last with under 10 minutes remaining, and twice lost them only to storm back to silence a pro-Arizona crowd. The defining stretch, before the final sequence, was a 10-0 run built on six points by Lamb to make it 62-55 with 3:08 left.
"Great teams make great plays and we had a stretch where we went on a run and they came back on a run," said Lamont "MoMo" Jones, a high school teammate of Walker's. "The game is whoever makes the most runs and they made the most runs."
Later, Kyle Fogg made a three to cut the Arizona deficit to three with 1:45 remaining. Next, Walker stepped back with authority for a jump shot to make it 65-60. Horne answered with a three-pointer. Shabazz Napier missed one at the other end.
Arizona (30-8) called a timeout with 18.2 seconds remaining. The play was designed to free Fogg. But Williams shot from the top of the key and missed long. There was, fittingly, an offensive rebound by Fogg. The ball wound up with Horne on the right. With the state of Connecticut holding its breath, he also missed.
Jones grabbed the ball but couldn't get off a shot. Time ran out. The celebration began.
"I was nervous," Walker said. "After that, I saw my teammates running on the court."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times