BY THE TIME CONNECTICUT LANDED IN ANAHEIM FOR THE SWEET 16, it was no longer the unranked group that inspired lukewarm expectations in November. By early March, conference play checkered with as many losses as wins prompted talk that this was a rebuilding year. But the Huskies showed surprising playoff endurance and made it clear that this might be their season after all.
The massive contingent of Aztecs faithful that drove 93 miles up to the Honda Center was eager to see No. 2 San Diego State, in that program's first Sweet 16 appearance, take on a more traditional powerhouse. With a lead that changed 11 times, the fans got their money's worth. Four Aztecs starters scored in the double digits, but that spread-the-wealth offense was no match for the Huskies' best. With UConn down by four and 9:19 to play, junior guard Kemba Walker, who ran the court for a full 40 minutes, led a 3½ minute 11--1 run to give the Huskies a lead they would never relinquish en route to a 74--67 win. Walker's game-high 36 points, a number most players would file under "personal best," had by that point become more of an expectation than a phenomenon. Said guard Jeremy Lamb, who had his own standout game, going 9 for 11 from the field, "Every game [Kemba] makes big shots, amazing shots. So I'm not surprised, but I'm still amazed."
On that same hard court two hours and 30 minutes later, Duke, the top seed in the West, crumbled under the power of fifth-seeded Arizona. Anyone who saw that game knew better than to see the upset as a blessing for UConn. Two days later in a pregame press conference, coach Jim Calhoun admitted that he was losing sleep over the imminent face-off with Wildcats offensive monster Derrick Williams.
And rightfully so. The teams tipped off in front of 17,856 fans, the vast majority of whom came out hoping to see Arizona's Cats light into those East Coast Dogs. Again the Huskies were the unwelcome bunch on the court, an environment that only fueled their fire. Williams had a productive night as usual, accounting for a third of Arizona's final score. But Walker's 20 points were complemented by 19 from Lamb in a performance that anointed the freshman as UConn's next top dog. Lamb's contribution was critical because Arizona stayed close until the end—only a pair of missed threes in the last 10 seconds by Williams and senior Jamelle Horne kept the Wildcats from advancing to Houston instead. Connecticut came away with a 65--63 win.
"These young guys have just given me a thrill beyond compare," Calhoun said after the game. "Our [postseason] march in the past nine games—I haven't experienced anything like this."
Bracketmakers hadn't been sure what to make of these Huskies, a team that only finished ninth in the conference but took home the Big East tournament crown. A team that had only one starter with NCAA tournament experience but finished ninth in the AP poll. As Connecticut headed to Houston, there was another ninth that spoke much louder: its ninth victory in 19 days. A third Final Four appearance in eight years meant that doubts about the team had finally given way to a sense of confidence.