March 27, 2011 in Sports

Connecticut continues late-season surge all the way to Final Four

Greg Beacham Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Connecticut’s Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Jeremy Lamb, center, fight Arizona’s Kevin Parrom for the ball.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Jim Calhoun could scarcely watch when the most improbable postseason run of his coaching life at Connecticut came down to an open 3-point attempt by Arizona’s Jamelle Horne.

The shot clanged off the back rim. The clock hit zeros.

Nine victories in just 19 days. Calhoun has seen just about everything, but nothing like this – and now his Huskies will keep running all the way to Houston.

Kemba Walker scored 20 points, freshman Jeremy Lamb added 19 and UConn earned its second Final Four berth in three years, beating Arizona 65-63 Saturday to win the West regional.

After missing the NCAA tournament entirely last year, Calhoun’s tireless team is headed to the Huskies’ fourth Final Four, punctuated by an ebullient on-court celebration in a building packed with Arizona fans.

UConn simply hasn’t lost since a .500 Big East regular season, winning five games in five days at the conference tournament before this NCAA run. Walker claims he isn’t surprised by this sprint through the postseason, while Lamb has nothing to compare it to, leaving Calhoun alone in his grateful disbelief.

“Never did I imagine a team winning nine games in tournament play in 19 days,” Calhoun said. “These brothers, these young guys, have just given me a thrill beyond compare. Our march in the past nine games, I haven’t experienced anything like this.”

UConn also made the Final Four in 1999, 2004 and 2009 – 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 play Saturday against the winner of today’s East Regional final between North Carolina and Kentucky.

Derrick Williams and Horne missed go-ahead 3-pointers in the final seconds for Arizona, allowing the third-seeded Huskies (30-9) to hang on after Lamb scored six key points down the stretch when Walker encouraged the Huskies to run plays for the fearless frosh.

“This is no time to be tired,” Walker said. “We’re trying to get as far as possible. We want to win this whole thing.”

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 couldn’t convert two good looks in the final seconds.

“The second one, I thought it was definitely going in,” Lamb said. “When he missed it, I looked at the clock and saw zero-zero, and I just went, ‘Whooooo.’ It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had.”

The Huskies are the last team standing from the Big East’s 11 NCAA entrants. After going 9-9 in regular-season conference play, they’ve done more than even Calhoun might have expected just three weeks ago.

The two-time national champion coach has referred to his group as “an old-fashioned team,” 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.

A year after Arizona’s 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.

“I’ve never been prouder of a team, and I’ve never seen a team come so far as we did in a short period of time,” Miller said. “It will probably feel better in a few weeks than it does now.”

Jesse Perry scored 14 points for Arizona, which trailed 34-25 early in the second half before a 9-0 run.

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