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.
Kemba’s Halftime Speech Lifts Huskies to National Title
HOUSTON — With his UConn Huskies trailing Butler by 3 points at halftime of the NCAA championship game, Kemba Walker screamed at his teammates in the locker room.
“This is not UConn basketball,” Walker, the Bronx kid out of Rice High School, shouted. “We need to pick it up. We need to play better defense. Shots are going to fall.”
“We all agreed with him and I think that was the turning point in this game,” sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi said. “And when we heard that, we told each other, ‘Let’s have a strong second half,’ and I definitely think we did that.”
Led by freshman Jeremy Lamb’s 12 second-half points and nine of Walker’s 16, the Huskies outscored the Bulldogs 34-19 in the second half to win their third NCAA title in 13 years, 53-41, before 70,376 at Reliant Stadium.
“It can’t get any better than this,” said the 6-foot-1 Walker, who added nine rebounds. “You see the tears on my face. I have so much joy in my life, it’s unreal. It’s surreal. I’m so happy right now.”
UConn (32-9) was unranked in the preseason, was picked to finish 10th in the Big East Conference and finished the regular season ninth.
Yet led by Walker’s inspired play, the solid Oriakhi (11 points, 11 rebounds) and the energy of the freshmen Lamb, Roscoe Smith and Shabazz Napier, they found a new gear down the stretch.
UConn won 11 straight postseason games, five in five days to win the Big East tournament and six more in the NCAA Tournament.
Huskies coach Jim Calhoun flashed a broad smile as he held up the championship trophy. At 68, he became the oldest coach ever to win a national title, his third since 1999. Phog Allen was the previous oldest coach at 66.
Calhoun joined an exclusive club of only four other men who have won three or more NCAA championships. John Wooden (11), Adolph Rupp (4), Mike Krzyzewski (4) and Bob Knight (3) are the others.
Questions linger about whether Calhoun will retire on top.
He is still dogged by allegations that he knew former recruit Nate Miles was accepting payments from an agent.
After a 22-month investigation, the NCAA in February suspended Calhoun for the first three Big East games of next season for failing to monitor and promote an atmosphere of compliance.
In a report that surfaced Friday, the New York Times quoted Miles saying that Calhoun was explicitly aware of the payments.
“I’ve said before that I took full responsibility as the head coach for anything that happened within my program,” Calhoun said Sunday.
But in the afterglow of winning his third title, Calhoun wasn’t giving any indication that he would ride off into the sunset.
“I love coaching,” he said. “I love my team. Once again, I’ll do the same thing I always do. We’ll go home, relax, get together with these guys, and just enjoy the moment.”
After UConn shot just 29 percent in the first half and trailed 22-19 on a last-second 3-pointer by Shelvin Mack (13 points), Walker lit into his teammates in the locker room.
His mother, Andrea Walker, said her son simply refused to lose.
“Yes, he wanted to tell them, ‘Let’s go, let’s go, let’s fight,'” she said. “The score wasn’t their team, their basketball. It was too low, so that’s why he was telling them, he’s trying to build them up and say, ‘Let’s go, let’s go. This is ours to take.’ And they took it.”
UConn’s 19 first half points were the lowest in a championship game half since California trailed Ohio State 37-19 in the 1960 final won by Ohio State.
After Walker’s halftime speech, UConn held Butler to 19 percent shooting overall (12 of 64)– the lowest in championship game history.
A year after losing to Duke in the final when Gordon Hayward’s last-second three-quarter court heave caromed off the backboard, Butler couldn’t score for much of the second half.
They managed just two field goals through the first 13 minutes, 47 seconds, and went 6:19 without scoring before Andrew Smith’s layup cut the UConn lead to 41-30.
“It was the best defensive game we played all year,” Calhoun said. “The kids showed incredible heart and I’m so proud of them.”
Meanwhile, after going scoreless in the first half, Lamb heated up and scored all 12 of his points in the second.
During a 22-3 UConn run to open the second half, Lamb hit a 3-pointer, made a steal and then threw down a dunk and scored on an alley-oop lay-in off a pass from Napier.
“At halftime, everybody was just telling me, ‘Come on, Lamb. We need you,'” Lamb said. “And my coach he really got on me, so I just wanted to make him happy, and I tried to come out and make some big plays. I was able to do that.”
With his length, the 6-5 Lamb held Mack to 4 of 15 shooting after he had gone for 24 points on 8 of 11 shooting in the national semifinals against VCU.
“I wouldn’t say I was frustrated,” Mack said. “They’re a great team, great defensive team. They did a great job of contesting every shot. They just weren’t falling today.”
Lamb is one of three freshmen starters and one of five who plays a role for the Huskies.
He dribbled the clock out in the final seconds and was bear-hugged by Napier as the horn went off.
“I’ve never felt like this before,” he said. “It was just an amazing feeling. It was a relief. All the hard work we put in, it paid off.”
Andrea Walker said her son told her UConn would win the Big East championship after the final regular-season game, a loss to Notre Dame.
She said he made the same prediction about the NCAA Tournament once the top seeds began falling like dominoes.
“After everybody was getting knocked out, he knew definitely that they were going to win,” she said.
“I knew this was going to happen. I knew this. He put this team on his back and he said, ‘Come on, ‘Let’s go, this is ours.'”
Walker will graduate in three years on May 8, also his birthday and Mother’s Day.
Then he will head to the NBA Draft in June as an NCAA champion.
“I don’t know what he’s planning on doing,” Andrea said. “Whatever he do, I’m glad.”
From beginning to end, Walker spear-headed his young team this year. And in the biggest spot of the season, he came up with the halftime speech that motivated them just in the nick of time.
“You know, we’ve been through a lot this year,” he said. “We had a tough midseason, but we stuck with each other and great things happened for us.
“We came out, we played hard tonight, and we’re national champions.”
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.