Elite 8 Recap West Final - (3) Connecticut 65, (5) Arizona 63
“Go to the West and take care of the rest.” That’s the saying former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps has used to express the value of being shipped away from home, where so many distractions can ensnare a participant in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Sure enough, another Irishman – like Phelps – has turned that statement into a way of life in March over the past 12 years.
Yes, for the fourth time since 1999, the Connecticut Huskies are moving on to the Final Four by way of a West Region championship. The road to college basketball’s promised land has led an Eastern team to Western vistas of fulfillment, exhilaration and triumph. In this 2011 season, a UConn crew that was beaten and bruised – mentally more than physically – at the end of a punishing Big East Conference regular season has now transformed itself in the span of three weeks. A team that finished ninth in a 16-team superleague has now won a conference tournament and an NCAA regional, delivering nine victories in a 19-day span, certainly one of the single most remarkable stretches in the history of college basketball.
It’s all so much to take in and reflect on, but the Huskies won’t have time to do too much story-sharing; they will now have to prepare for a Final Four national semifinal next Saturday in Houston, Texas.
Connecticut defeated the Arizona Wildcats in the final of the West Regional on Saturday night from the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. The Wildcats came out with a fury, scoring 11 of the game’s first 14 points, but when Arizona superstar Derrick Williams – the best player on the court in this game – picked up his second and (later) third fouls in the first half, the Wildcats – playing what was essentially a home game in Southern California – lost momentum, leverage and scoreboard parity. Connecticut was able to accumulate a seven-point halftime lead against an Arizona team that, without its meal-ticket player, could not spread the court or do anything to pry open holes in Connecticut’s sturdy defense.
The second half turned into a classic punch-counterpunch festival of playmaking. On one end of the floor, Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb were throwing down ballsy jumpers for Connecticut and making acrobatic plays in the open court as well. At the other end, Arizona’s supporting cast was given new life by the return of Williams to the lineup. Timid without their star, the other Arizona players went from “basket cases” to “basket Cats” by tenaciously attacking the rim. Jesse Perry (14 points) and Kyle Fogg (11 points) slashed to the goal while Williams occupied Connecticut defenders on the wings and on the weakside area of the paint. This is how Arizona pulled ahead by a 55-52 count and later – following a Connecticut countersurge – was able to stay close enough to win the game on its final, fateful possession.
With the Huskies leading by two points, Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne both got clean three-point looks to put Arizona in the Final Four for the first time since 2001. However, both players – especially a wide-open Horne in the right corner – missed potential daggers, and the clock expired on Arizona’s season. The Big East Tournament champion Huskies continued their streaking play and their tireless commitment to each possession. Saturday’s win wasn’t solely on the back of Walker; the New York product got his share of the action with 20 points, but it was Lamb’s 19 point effort which was the catalyst to UConn’s success… success that has carried the Huskies to place they couldn’t have dreamed of three short weeks ago, when they sat in ninth place in the Big East Conference.
Talk about a mad month of March… UConn is mad in all the right ways for all the right reasons.
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