HOUSTON (AP) — When the options boil down to winning or heading home, nobody’s better than Kemba and Connecticut.
Kemba Walker scored 18 points Saturday night to lift UConn to its 10th straight victory since finishing off a .500 Big East regular season, a 56-55 win over cold-shooting Kentucky that moved the Huskies a victory away from their third, and most improbable, NCAA title.
Walker, a quick-handed junior from the Bronx, added seven assists and six rebounds to help the young UConn team (31-9) extend a winning streak that started with a five-wins-in-five-nights leg-drainer at the conference tournament and now includes five more at the tournament that really counts.
The third-seeded Huskies — lowest seed left in a tournament that has been as unpredictable as any in history — will face No. 8 Butler, a 70-62 winner over 11th-seeded VCU in the first semifinal, on Monday.
“The guys decided they didn’t want to go home; this is too much fun,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said.
But this win, which improved Calhoun to 5-1 in his four Final Four appearances, was not a work of art on either end.
Fourth-seeded Kentucky (29-9) shot 33.9 percent for the game and went 5:39 without a point late in the second half. UConn wasn’t much better, but Walker, Alex Oriakhi and Shabazz Napier all made baskets to turn a 48-48 tie into a 54-48 lead with 2:29 left.
DeAndre Liggins made a 3-pointer for the Wildcats to cut the deficit to three, and Kentucky had its chances. But Brandon Knight, one of John Calipari’s three sensational freshmen, barely drew iron on a 3-pointer. After Kentucky got the rebound, Liggins drew a foul but only hit one of two free throws.
Kentucky forced one more turnover and went for the win, but this time, it was Liggins whose 3-pointer was short.
“I should have drove it,” Liggins said. “It was a good shot, but it fell short.”
Napier made two free throws to make it 56-52, then Knight ended the game with a 3-pointer at the buzzer — a meaningless make and a cruel close to what has otherwise been a remarkable season for Calipari and Co. — Kentucky’s first trip to the Final Four since winning it all in 1998. The Wildcats, the nation’s all-time winningest program, stayed stuck on 105 NCAA-tournament wins in the program history, still tied for first with North Carolina, the team they beat to get here.
“We held a pretty good team to 56 points,” Calipari said. “I hate to tell you, we talked about if we defend them this way, they’re going score around 56 points, maybe 60. I just didn’t think we’d score 55.”
The Huskies have won by one, by two, by three, by five and more on this unexpected postseason run. Before that, Calhoun’s roster full of freshmen lived down to expectations by going 9-9 in their conference. But the Huskies haven’t lost since falling to Notre Dame to close the regular season on Feb. 5.
UConn wasn’t nearly as dominating here in Houston as in its 84-67 victory over Kentucky in November at the Maui Invitational. But a win’s a win, and nobody does it better than UConn when it’s all-or-nothing. Counting that relatively low-key get-together on the island, the Huskies are 13-0 in tournament games this season.
Next up: A meeting with Butler, the small school from Indianapolis that was last year’s runner-up. But after this one, it was UConn sounding like the plucky underdog.