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BILL PLASCHKE

Connecticut's Kemba Walker is the star of this NCAA tournament

The effervescent guard carries the Huskies to the West Regional finals, scoring 36 points in a 74-67 victory over San Diego State.

March 24, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Connecticut guard Kemba Walker celebrates as the Huskies finish off a 74-67 victory over San Diego State on Thursday night in Anaheim.
Connecticut guard Kemba Walker celebrates as the Huskies finish off a 74-67… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

He jumped on a teammate's shoulder, faked a shot, danced through a pretend dribble, squealed and pointed to the sky.

And this was in a hallway after the game.

On an NCAA tournament stage ransacked by the usual March mayhem, nobody could stop the goofy, gifted Kemba Walker.

Not San Diego State, not the shot clock, not the rule book, not a Honda Center filled with haters, and not even time itself, the University of Connecticut's junior guard still playing an imaginary game long after his team had defeated the Aztecs, 74-67, Thursday in the West Regional semifinals.

"I've got a chip inside me," Walker said, fighting a losing battle with a laugh. "I'm like a machine."

UConn ends San Diego State's most successful season

By the time the plug was finally pulled, sparks and smoke everywhere, the machine had scored 36 points, including 14 of his team's 16 points during a game-deciding run midway through the second half.

"I was just feeling it," Walker said.

On Saturday his Huskies will be trying to get their arms around Arizona and steamrolling Derrick Williams after the Wildcats upset top-seeded Duke, 93-77, Thursday in the other semifinal .

I will marvel at Williams. But I won't be able to take my eyes off Walker. And I will not be alone.

Feeling it, Kemba? On Thursday afternoon the entire gym was feeling you, Walker scoring on distant three-pointers, soaring layups, short jumpers and free throw after free throw, causing the Aztecs to fume and their thousands of fans to groan and, finally, somebody stated the obvious.

That somebody was, of course, Walker, who turned to the press table after one of his bombs and tugged his jersey and shook his head.

"They can't guard me!" he shouted, and who could argue?

Just like that, the tiny guy with the wide-eyed smile and scraggly chin hair that he refuses to shave has become the best thing about this billion-dollar tournament. After a weekend filled with average basketball and questionable officiating, college basketball needs Kemba Walker, a star who is not too big to act like a child, a 20-year-old who laughs his way through giant games with playground guts.

Said teammate Alex Oriakhi: "Sometimes I just stop and look at him and go, like, 'How did he do that?'"

Said the Aztecs' Billy White: "He's almost impossible to stop."

He is listed at 6 feet 1, looks about three inches shorter, plays about 10 feet taller. He would score on soaring drives after holding the ball for the entire 35 seconds of the shot clock. He would score on quick, shrugging, distant three-pointers when the Aztecs didn't believe him enough to challenge him.

"I can do so many things, I don't think people understand it," he said.

One moment he was flying into a ball boy, climbing to his feet, checking on the boy's health, then giving the kid a high five. The next moment he was completing a three-pointer by wagging three fingers at the official.

"He always reaches the second gear," said UConn Coach Jim Calhoun.

Walker has indeed been doing something like this all year, averaging 24 points a game while leading the nation in wows with six game-winning or go-ahead baskets in the final three minutes.

But this being UConn's eighth consecutive playoff-type game — the Huskies had to win five consecutive games to win the Big East tourney — many folks figured the kid would finally tire out.

When he missed his first four shots Thursday and didn't score a basket until midway through the first half, that weariness seemed evident. Or not.

"Nah, I was going to keep shooting regardless," said Walker, shameless, blameless and charming.

His best shot? "I don't even remember any of them," he said, grinning.

His best play? It might have been one that didn't even involve the ball.

Walking off the court for a timeout midway through the second half, with the Aztecs leading by four, Walker was nudged by the Aztecs' Jamaal Franklin. Walker took a dive, landing on the floor in front of the Aztecs' bench, drawing a technical foul on Franklin, converting two free throws that closed the gap and began the game-clinching run.

"No, I didn't flop," said Walker, adding, "I just didn't want to fight with them."

As officials made the decision while looking at a replay, many others who saw the same replay disagreed. Whatever, Walker had won again.

He was so good during the ensuing five minutes, he left the Aztecs too dazed to even guard him properly. Yeah, they didn't double-team him. Yeah, he was thrilled.

Said Walker: "I was really surprised. I mean, usually I get triple-teamed. I guess they take a lot of pride in playing man-to-man."

Said Aztecs Coach Steve Fisher: "It didn't matter who was guarding him."

No, it didn't, but come Saturday, with a trip to the Final Four at stake, Arizona probably has a different idea, the Wildcats sharp and swaggering and also feeling it.

Williams will be barreling. Walker will be baffling. College basketball will once again be beating its chest.

"I am so happy," said Walker, and, again, who could argue?

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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