During our TSL Big Dance Bracket Buster tournament previews we highlighted UConn as a team that could get on a rolling wreck because of their highly-skilled guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Napier is the more prominent player and primary ball handler so he gets most of the shines, shimmy and the shots. And as this tourney materializes, he’ll get the majority of the blame and credit.
The second-round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship reaffirmed that belief as UConn had its back against the wall, facing a tough Saint Joseph's squad. Behind a Kemba Walker-like 24-point, eight-rebound, six-assist gem from Napier and 17 points from Boatright, UConn was able to pull off the 89-81 OT victory and advance to an old school Big East slamdance with Villanova on Saturday. As Dick Vitale said on ESPN, “Napier would just not allow them to lose.”
On Saturday night Napier was that dude again. He shook off a bruised shin and scorched Nova for 25 points – 21 coming in the second half – to lead No. 7 seed UConn to a 77-65 win over second-seeded Villanova and another trip to The Sweet Sixteen.
Connecticut fans were surely having flashbacks shared by TNT analyst Kenny Smith, who prior to the tourney, likened UConn’s inconsistent play and backcourt-reliance to the 2011 team that won an unexpected National Championship. First, they rode the back of All-American guard Walker to a stunning Big East Championship over Louisville. Walker scored a tournament-record 130 points in five games.
The 6-2 guard from The Bronx Zoo drained an array of acrobatic shots, deft-penetration pull-ups, long-range jumpers and game-clinching buckets to help UConn became the first school to win five games in five days to earn a conference championship.
Then, UConn hit the NCAA tourney hot as stolen headphones from Best Buy and Walker’s historic performances elevated him from questionable NBA point guard to bonafide first-round status. They say superstars are made during March Madness and legacies are built on clutch shots and unfortunate failures. Walker is the epitome of that philosophy. He might have finished second to "Vanilla Boy Wonder" Jimmer Fredette in the College Basketball Player of the Year honors, but Walker was clearly a Tournament Titan and the best college player on the planet for the month of March and a few days in April in 2011.
He led UConn with 18 points in an 81-52 first-round win over Bucknell. Then he exploded for 33 points in a 69-58 win over Cincinnati. In a 74-67 regional semifinal win against San Diego State, Walker had an all-time performance with 36 numbers. Connecticut needed everyone of Walker's team-high 20 points to narrowly defeat Arizona 65-63 in the regional final. In the Final Four against powerhouse Kentucky and Terrence Jones, Walker led all scorers with 18 points (he also chipped in 6 boards and 7 assists) as UConn squeaked by the Wildcats 56-55.
The final stroke applied to Walker's vividly painted college career, was the 16 points he scored in the National Championship game, a 53-41 win over Butler, giving UConn and legendary coach Jim Calhoun their third National C’hip in school history. In the process, Walker was named NCAA Basketball Tournament Most Outstanding Player .
What makes Walker’s story magnificent is that he survived the tough streets of the Bronx and he did it with strong family support, a killer high school career at Rice and a personality that endeared people to the potency of his character and intelligence as much as his relentless, concrete jungle-honed, gutter game.
“Maybe it's a story that people from the outside wouldn't think could happen in the city,” former UConn assistant Andre LaFleur told the Daily News in 2011. "But I saw parents he respected. I saw a respect he had from his school that had nothing to do with his ability as a basketball player. I saw brothers and priests who loved this kid the way coaches are supposed to."
In trying to find the perfect words to describe the diminutive Bronx Bomber who built his legend playing games at Seward and Rosedale and Parque Del Los Ninos, Lafleur summed it up best:
"Kemba Walker is an inner-city fairy tale."