We Reminisce: Kemba Walker’s 2011 NCAA Tournament Run

I was watching Connecticut play Memphis last Thursday night on ESPN in the American Athletic Conference Quarterfinals and I heard one of the announcers say there is not one individual in UConn’s history whose team leaned on him more during a season than current senior guard Shabazz Napier. Napier won the league’s player of the year honors and has been tremendous this year, but I cannot agree with the statement. What Kemba Walker accomplished during the 2011 college basketball season was truly remarkable and fun to watch. Kemba was the unquestionable leader for the Huskies and the main reason why they won the NCAA championship in 2011. Walker took young players such as Napier and Jeremy Lamb under his wing during the season and put on one of the best performances throughout the month of March that I have ever seen.

Kemba Walker’s legacy started off in November in the Maui Invitational. UConn was unranked and foreshadowed what was to come when they pulled off some huge upsets against Michigan State and Kentucky. Kemba scored 90 points in three games and led the Huskies to the title while being named tournament MVP.

Despite winning the tournament, the Huskies were still underappreciated during the regular season and the team went 9-9 in Big East Conference play, despite Kemba’s strong season. Then we all know what happened during tournament play. Walker finished fourth in scoring in the country and was in a race all season with Jimmer Fredette for National Player of the Year honors (which I think he should have won). He won the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player of the Year award, Bob Cousy award, Big East Tournament MVP and was named a First Team All-American. The Huskies relied heavily on Kemba in every aspect.

Big East Tournament
I miss the old Big East already; there was nothing like it. It was hands down the best conference in the country and with all of the talk about conference realignment, Kemba gave us one last historic run we will never forget. It is a shame teams like Connecticut and Syracuse are not in the conference anymore. Doug McDermott is great but I can’t stand to see a team like Creighton playing in the Big East.

Anyway back to the story… the Huskies entered the tournament as the ninth seed. (They weren’t favored to challenge for the conference title, let alone the NCAA title.) But from the first game, Kemba was possessed and there was no stopping him. The Huskies defeated Depaul easily in the first game of the tournament, then faced Georgetown where Kemba gave Hoyas guard Chris Wright buckets, ending the game with 28 points and the win. Next up was the game that still haunts Gary McGhee and his ankles ’till this day.

UConn faced Pitt in a quarterfinal matchup that probably seemed like the end of the Huskies run until Kemba pulled off his heroics. Everyone in the world knew the ball was going to Kemba at the end of the game. For Gary McGhee, a serviceable 7-footer, to be left alone on an island against one of the quickest guards in the country… there was no chance for him.

It during was my freshman year in college and I was in my dorm room watching the game on ESPN. I remember frantically watching and listening to the announcer’s play-by-play: “Walker on McGhee with four…Kemba Walker step-back…Walker…Cardiac Kemba does it again! UConn wins at the buzzer!” It was amazing to watch.

In the semifinal game against Syracuse, Kemba put on his best performance, finishing with 33 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and six steals in an overtime win. The Huskies met Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals for the championship game. It was their fifth game in as many days and the fatigue was setting in. The team still pulled off a three-point win to become the first school to win five games in five days to win a conference tournament. The thought of it is just bizarre and the chances were unlikely. Kemba was obviously named MVP of the tournament after scoring 130 points in the games.

Hit page 2 for a recap of his NCAA tournament play…

NCAA Tournament
Round of 64:
Connecticut (81) vs. Bucknell (52)

The Huskies entered the NCAA tournament with a generous three-seed after their triumph in the Big East Tournament. At first glimpse there was no way the Huskies could translate their heroic play into the NCAA tournament. With the thought of fatigue in mind, the Huskies showed up and easily beat Bucknell in the second round by 19, as Kemba secured his career-high in assists with 12.

Round of 32
Connecticut (69) vs. Cincinnati (58)

As a fellow Big East foe that experienced first-hand what Kemba did in the tournament, you would expect the Bearcats to know a thing or two more about stopping the Huskies. That was not the case. Cincinnati could not hold Kemba down as he scored 33 points, with 16 of them coming during the last ten minutes of the game.

Sweet 16
Connecticut (74) vs. San Diego State (67)

The Huskies entered the game with seven straight wins and it was a matchup between Kemba and Kawhi Leonard. The game was fairly a close as the Aztecs battled back in the second half to take a lead with nine minutes left in the game. With San Diego State on a huge momentum run, after Jamaal Franklin scored, he gave a slight shoulder bump to Kemba (flop award), which resulted in a technical foul. Then Kemba went on a run and could not be stopped. He ended up with 36 points in the game. This game also made Jeremy Lamb one of the best prospects in the country after scoring 24 points on 9-for-11 shooting.

Elite 8
Connecticut (65) vs. Arizona (63)

This was the first game that Kemba Walker came back down to Earth. He had a tough game against Arizona, despite ending the game with 20 points and seven assists. With the constant focus on Walker, Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier stepped up big time and helped out. With the Huskies up by three with a minute to play, Kemba went back to a move that worked well for him and stepped back on his defender and drained the shot to put the Huskies up by five to eventually win the game.

Final Four
Connecticut (56) vs. Kentucky (55)

In a rematch of their Maui Invitational game, the Huskies and Wildcats put on a thriller to watch, finishing in a one-point game. The Huskies won their tenth consecutive game with Walker scoring 18 points, grabbing six boards and dishing out seven assists. Kemba was again unguardable against a deep but young Kentucky team.

NCAA Championship
Connecticut (53) vs. Butler (41)

In a five-week span, Kemba’s run became one of the greatest of all time. He became a national favorite and the best story during the tournament. Making it to the National Championship Game seemed out of reach for the Huskies during the season but with Walker’s relentless play, the Huskies achieved what they wanted. The Huskies won their 11th straight single-elimination game and captured the title over the Butler Bulldogs in a low and ugly scoring game. Kemba’s last game was not pretty as he finished with 16 points and nine rebounds but he did win the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player award.

Kemba’s leadership showed that having a lot of heart can take you very far. He gave confidence in his team to play together and told them that losing was not an option.

Who are the most likely candidates this year to pull off a run like this?

Follow Jarrel on Twitter at @_JarrelHarris.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.