Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – With Pittsburgh having been bounced from the NCAA Tournament by Butler, UConn may represent the Big East’s best chance of reaching a Final Four.
Behind a game-best 33 points, six rebounds and five assists from Kemba Walker, the red-hot Huskies won their seventh straight game in a 12-day span by knocking off conference rival Cincinnati, 69-58, in a third-round West Regional game at the Verizon Center.
UConn’s victory followed Butler’s dramatic 71-70 victory over top-seeded Pitt in a Southeast Regional game in which two foul calls were made in the final 2 seconds. Butler’s Matt Howard won the game with a free throw with. 8 seconds left.
“I think all of us root for each other,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said, referring to the other Big East teams.
“I watched the end of the Pitt game and I haven’t ever seen anything like that in 39 years of coaching, both plays. We think we’re going out there representing UConn and obviously we’re a Big East team. The conference has beaten each other up in many ways.”
The tournament began with a record 11 Big East teams and now just four remain: UConn (28-9), Syracuse, Marquette and Notre Dame.
Syracuse or Marquette will be eliminated Sunday when they meet.
Cincinnati lost despite a team-high 22 points from Paterson, N.J. native Rashad Bishop.
In order for the Big East champion Huskies to advance to the Elite Eight, they will have to beat San Diego State in their home state. The Aztecs (34-2) advanced to the Sweet 16 with 71-64 double-overtime victory over Temple earlier Saturday.
The winner of that game could get Kyrie Irving and No. 1 Duke in the regional final.
“It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be a home game for those guys [the Aztecs] but we’ve been in those situations before,” Walker said. “I think we’ll have a good crowd also because, you know, UConn travels great.
“They’re real good. They got some players. They’re very athletic.”
UConn, which won five games in five days last week to win the Big East tournament title, continues to ride Walker, even as his body takes a beating.
He injured his wrist in the first half against the Bearcats (26-9) and hurt his thigh in the second.
“I hurt my wrist when I went up for layup or dunk or whatever,” he said. “I fell on my wrist and in the second half Yancy [Gates] kneed me in my thigh but I didn’t let it affect me. I just played through it. I can deal with all the bruises later.”
Still, Walker made a critical steal late in the game by stepping in front of Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick, racing upcourt and feeding the ball to Jeremy Lamb for a layup for two of his 14 points.
Walker then made six straight foul shots down the stretch to ice the victory.
“I tried my best to force the issue and get fouled,” Walker said. “And I was able to get fouled tonight.”
Walker’s overall play since the Big East tournament has his teammates feeling extremely confident and playing at very high level.
“When Kemba’s scoring like that and other people are making shots, it’s hard for people to guard us,” Lamb said. “And it makes us so much harder to play.”
“I do think we can beat anybody we play,” UConn center Alex Oriakhi said. “As long as everybody keeps doing what they’ve been doing, Kemba keeps scoring and we keep concentrating with the little things, I definitely think we can beat anybody.”
Calhoun said Walker was now in the same class as former UConn greats known simply by their first names.
“Years down the line, when you say Ray, Rip, Emeka, Ben, Kemba’s in there,” Calhoun said.
And now the coach hopes Walker can continue to put the Huskies on his back as the team moves out West.
“We happen to have a super player, in my opinion, the best player in America,” Calhoun added.
“There isn’t much difference [between the teams] and hopefully Kemba will make that difference in that game.”
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.