March 10, 2011: Wire Walker. Buzzer-Beater Sends Huskies To Semifinals
On March 10, 2011 Kemba Walker kept UConn's Big East tournament title hopes alive when he stepped back and drilled a game-winning shot against Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden. (STEPHEN DUNN, MCT / March 9, 2011)
Six seconds, then five, four ...
With a growing sense of urgency enveloping Madison Square Garden, Walker darted toward a helpless Gary McGhee, stepped back to create a little space and went left to create some more. Walker ultimately again jumped backward, this time so sharply that McGhee fell to the court, before releasing the shot that now lives beside other magical moments in UConn's storied Big East tournament history.
Walker's jumper from about 18 feet fell softly through the net as time expired, giving the ninth-seeded Huskies a 76-74 victory over top-seeded Pittsburgh Thursday in a wildly entertaining, dramatic quarterfinal that left UConn players dashing onto the court to mob their unflappable star.
"They told me to take the last shot and win the game for us," said Walker, who grew up dreaming of moments like this just a few miles away in the Bronx. "That's what I did, and there is nothing like doing it in your hometown."
Walker, who finished with 24 points, five assists and five rebounds in 40 minutes, had the final answer for the resolute Huskies (24-9), who became the first team in tournament history to begin play on Tuesday and win three games. Now two victories from an improbable seventh title that would tie Georgetown's record, UConn advances to face fourth-seeded Syracuse in a semifinal Friday at 7 p.m. The Orange, who advanced with a 79-73 victory over St. John's, beat UConn 66-58 on Feb. 2 at the XL Center.
"It means after three days I feel so much better about our team," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "We have not experienced it recently, but Friday night in Madison Square Garden, it's a pretty special building to walk into."
UConn and Pittsburgh (27-5) made it pretty special on Thursday afternoon. The last three meetings between these teams in New York were tournament championship games in 2002, 2003 and 2004. This only felt like one. When it was over, Calhoun twice jumped and raised his arms. Dejected Pitt players walked off slowly.
"Obviously a great game for everybody to watch," Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said. "Disappointing for us in that we came up short."
Dixon went on to say that UConn essentially beat Pittsburgh at its own game. The Huskies had a 32-25 rebounding advantage, made 21 of 25 free throws and had 20 points off turnovers to none for the Panthers. Jeremy Lamb had 17 points for UConn and Alex Oriakhi 13 points and seven rebounds - 11 and five in the second half.
Pittsburgh shot 55.1 percent, the season high for a UConn opponent, surpassing the 52.1 percent it posted in a decisive regular season victory over the Huskies Dec. 27. So strong and so precise, the Panthers threatened to blow this game open, building a 12-point lead in the first half and riding magnificent guard Ashton Gibbs, who had a career-high 27 points and made 6 of 7 three-pointers.
UConn trailed 60-54 midway through the second half but charged back with a 13-5 run. Walker gave the Huskies a 67-65 lead on a drive. Oriakhi was fouled while attempting to dunk a put-back and made one free throw to break a 69-69 tie. The Garden was buzzing.
With 1:02 remaining, Oriakhi's put-back of a Walker miss gave UConn a 74-71 lead. But Gibbs quickly tied it with 47.9 left on a three-pointer. Walker short-armed an open look in the lane, but Jamal Coombs-McDaniel emerged from a sea of Pittsburgh players to grab the rebound and had the presence of mind to call timeout with 18 seconds left.
Kemba Time, of course.
"As we all know, he's done it the whole year," Oriakhi said. "Those are the shots he hits."
Walker beat Texas with 5.4 seconds left in overtime. He beat Villanova with 2.5 left in regulation. He made go-ahead shots in the final possessions against Wichita State and Michigan State. There have been so many other game-changing moments. And now this: A New York buzzer-beater that elicited memories of Taliek Brown's 33-foot heave against Pitt in 2002 and Ray Allen's game-winner against Georgetown in 1996.
"An amazing play," Lamb said.
Brad Wanamaker, who scored 17 points, was the first to guard Walker, but Coombs-McDaniel, trailed by McGhee, set a screen and Pittsburgh switched. Calhoun said that Walker's options were to take the shot or kick to Coombs-McDaniel.
"There wasn't any doubt in my mind what option was going to be taken, though," Calhoun said. "Once he put that hard dribble down and saw McGhee, he went up and just made a spectacular play. Kemba has made a ton of big shots this year and I think he's the single most important guy for a team in college basketball."
McGhee is a 6-foot-11 center. He didn't have much of a chance of containing Walker on the perimeter.
"He made a great move, a speed dribble to the left," McGhee said. "I thought he was going to the basket. He made a step back, I stumbled, and he knocked down a jump shot to end the Big East championship run we could have made."