NCAA Tournament: UConn 65, Arizona 63
By Greg Beacham
ANAHEIM , Calif. ó With nine pressure-packed victories in 19 days, Connecticut has been on an exhausting sprint through the postseason for nearly three weeks now.
Turns out Kemba Walker and his Huskies arenít slowing down until they get to Houston.
Walker scored 20 points, freshman Jeremy Lamb added 19 and Connecticut earned its second Final Four berth in three years, beating Arizona 65-63 Saturday to win the West regional.
Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne missed 3-pointers in the final seconds for Arizona, allowing the third-seeded Huskies (30-9) to hang on after Lamb, the Huskiesí fearless freshman, scored six key points down the stretch.
After missing the NCAA tournament entirely last year, coach Jim Calhounís tireless team is headed to UConnís fourth Final Four, punctuated by an ebullient celebration in a building packed with Arizona fans.
ěThis is no time to be tired,î Walker said. ěWeíre trying to get as far as possible. We want to win this whole thing.î
Williams had 20 points while battling foul trouble for the fifth-seeded Wildcats (30-8), who led with 6 minutes to play. After Lamb pushed the Huskies ahead and Walker hit a jumper with 1:13 left, Lamont Jones and Horne then hit late 3-pointers for Arizona, but the Wildcats couldnít convert two good looks in the final seconds.
ěThe second one, I thought it was definitely going in,î Lamb said. ěWhen he missed it, I looked at the clock and saw zero-zero, and I just went, ëWhooooo.í Itís the best feeling Iíve ever had.î
UConn also made the Final Four in 1999, 2004 and 2009 ó all three times out of the West. In sweet redemption for a program and a veteran coach tarred by scandals over the past year, the Huskies will face the winner of North Carolinaís East regional final against Kentucky next Saturday.
The Huskies are the last team standing from the Big Eastís 11 NCAA entrants. After going 9-9 in regular-season conference play, theyíve done more than even Calhoun might have expected just three weeks ago.
After the Wildcats missed their final two shots, Walker and Calhoun wrapped each other in a bear hug at center court after the buzzer as Emeka Okafor, Jake Voskuhl and other UConn alums celebrated on the court.
The two-time national champion coach has referred to his group as ěan old-fashioned team,î a praise of their work ethic and resilience. But they also showed remarkable poise down the stretch in a building firmly in favor of the Wildcats.
ěI definitely expected to play in the NCAA tournament and have a chance at the Final Four when I chose UConn,î Lamb said. ěI just didnít know it would happen this fast.î
A year after Arizonaís 25-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances ended, the Wildcats and second-year coach Sean Miller were one 3-pointer away from a return to the Final Four. Williams demolished Duke in the regional semifinals with a career-high 32 points, but three early fouls limited him to 7 minutes in the first half against UConn.
Jesse Perry scored 14 points for Arizona, which trailed 34-25 early in the second half before scoring nine straight points. The Wildcats reclaimed the lead with 141/2 minutes left on Williamsí layup, but UConn quickly scored seven consecutive points.
The Huskies led 50-41 until the Wildcats made a 12-2 run that included two rim-ripping dunks by Williams and the go-ahead slam by Perry with 7:17 left. With Honda Center rocking in Arizona red, Lamb smoothly put the Huskies ahead before following Alex Oriakhiís putback layup with a steal and a dunk with 3:08 left for a seven-point lead.
UConn just keeps rolling in what has shaped up as a magnificent season after last yearís disappointing NIT trip. The Huskies roared through the league tournament with an unprecedented display of endurance ó five wins in five days ó at Madison Square Garden.
ěI only feel tired after everything is over,î Walker said.