THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

UConn has surprise for Calhoun

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / March 27, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Jim Calhoun had said all week that after all this time as head coach at the University of Connecticut, there are no real surprises. When he has a really good team, or when his kids get on a roll, that’s life as he knows it.

“It’s never unexpected to me,’’ he insisted. “It’s joyous to me. It’s great.’’ He went on to say that, as far as this particular team is concerned, “I keep calling them an old-fashioned team, and they don’t play ‘old-fashioned basketball.’ But they do have values. They want to win, and they want to help each other.’’

And that was before they got him back to the Final Four.

So, he’s now willing to acknowledge that this team has shown him something new.

“I’ve been fortunate over 39 years to coach some teams that did a lot of wonderful things,’’ he said, “but for this team to win nine games in 19 days in tournament play is very special. This unique group of young men have given me a thrill beyond compare.’’

Yes, Calhoun has been to the Final Four three times before, and he’s won it all twice. But those other UConn teams were laden with experienced players en route to the NBA. None of those teams started three fresh men and none of those teams entered the Big East tournament as a No. 9 seed and needed to win five games in five days to claim the trophy. This really is a UConn team unlike any other, and you can start with the fact that two of its players scored 71 percent of the points as the Huskies defeated San Diego State and Arizona at the Honda Center to become West Regional champions and secure a berth in next weekend’s Final Four.

Last night’s was a game of violent momentum swings, and there was no reason to think the Wildcats wouldn’t have the final say. Arizona had the ball, down 2, but Derrick Williams missed a straightaway three and Jamelle Horne couldn’t connect from the corner, and thus UConn was able to escape with a 65-63 victory.

The estimable Kemba Walker was awarded the Most Outstanding Player trophy, but he might consider loaning it out on occasion to his freshman cohort, Jeremy Lamb. When the Huskies were in their most peril, trailing, 55-52, after a 12-2 Arizona run, it was the young man from Baltimore who took control of the game. He started with a left-side jumper and followed with another jumper off a curl that had Ray Allen/Richard Hamilton written all over it.

His next official act on offense may have been his best. After Walker had hit a little runner to make it 58-55, the Huskies were stalled on their next possession. Lamb found himself with the basketball as the shot clock ticked toward zero. He was far out on the right, in front of the UConn bench. But he was able to jackknife his slender body and fling a desperation shot toward the hoop. The odds on it drawing iron were slim, but that’s what he did, and Alex Oriakhi was able to gather in the rebound and put it in the hoop.

The Kid wasn’t done. He came up with an open-court steal and capped his trip to the hoop with a sneakaway dunk. That 10-0 UConn run gave the Huskies a 62-55 lead with 3:08 left, and when all the smoke had cleared and the valiant Wildcats had made a couple of clutch final-minute 3-pointers, that was the cushion that sent Connecticut on to Houston.

It may seem strange to say after Walker and Lamb have combined for 99 of the team’s 139 points in a regional, but this really was an amazing team triumph for the Huskies. Calhoun had to start shuffling people in and out as early as the minute-and-a-half mark, or as soon as he saw that Arizona seemed intent on gang-tackle rebounding its way to victory. Seven-foot senior Charles Okwandu may not be the most artful of players, but the Nigerian is put together and he can provide a needed big-man presence. Absent his valuable 12-minute first-half contribution, there is no way the Huskies could have survived, let alone find a way to take a 7-point (32-25) lead into the locker room.

The same can be said of freshman Shabazz Napier, a dynamic guard from Randolph, Mass., Charlestown High, and the Metro Boston AAU. He changed the complexion of the game at both ends. The little guy is so cocky out there he prompted one sideline observer to say, “He isn’t afraid of anybody, even Calhoun.’’ That’s probably true.

The Huskies likewise owe some thanks to another freshman, Roscoe Smith. The 6-7 product of Baltimore doesn’t look particularly robust, but he isn’t afraid to stick his nose into the thick of rebounding action. The final rebound stats favored Arizona (42-31, including 19-11 offensive), but the truth is UConn was able to stabilize things after taking an early whupping on the glass.

The ultimate grandeur and lure of sport lies in the simple fact that you just never know. This isn’t like going to a concert, play or movie. This business is completely and utterly unscripted. It all falls in the lap of the participants to give us the story. It is the ultimate improvisational theater.

What UConn has done by winning these nine consecutive games in 19 days is unprecedented in the annals of collegiate basketball. No matter what he says, even perennial optimist Jim Calhoun never thought for a millisecond when they threw the ball up to start his first-round Big East tournament game against DePaul back on March 8 that he would be attending the 2011 Final Four as the coach of a participating team.

But it’s sport. You never know, you know?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.