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Connecticut gets everything ironed out at the end and beats Arizona

Three-point shots by Arizona's Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne bounce off rim in final seconds, and the NCAA tournament magic continues for Kemba Walker and the Huskies, who are headed to Final Four after a 65-63 victory over the Wildcats, having won nine in a row after finishing ninth in the Big East.

March 26, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Arizona forward Derrick Williams drives to the hoop between Connecticut's Roscoe Smith, left, and Shabazz Napier in the second half of the NCAA West Regional final Saturday at Anaheim's Honda Center.
Arizona forward Derrick Williams drives to the hoop between Connecticut's… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Connecticut's grueling slog through March culminated Saturday with a hold-your-breath, 65-63 victory over Arizona at Honda Center.

The Huskies could exhale only after Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne missed three-point attempts that could have won it for Arizona.

Williams' three missed long but teammate Kyle Fogg rebounded and got the ball to Horne, who had as good a look as you're going to get this time of year.

"I was scared," Connecticut guard Kemba Walker said of watching two potential tournament-wreckers. "I was nervous."

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Walker thought Horne's shot was good, but the next thing he knew the horn was sounding and his bench was jumping.

The great news for Connecticut was clinching the West Regional and securing a spot in next week's Final Four in Houston.

The almost-equally-good news is finally getting to rest.

Victory capped one of the most memorable and exhausting stretches in NCAA history — nine consecutive victories in a span of 19 days dating to the start of the Big East Conference tournament.

"I've never seen a group of kids do what this team has done," Huskies Coach Jim Calhoun said.

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Connecticut entered the postseason having lost four of five games to finish 9-9, tied for ninth, in the Big East.

Eight of the nine straight victories have come against NCAA tournament teams — the exception being DePaul on March 8.

The Big East sent 11 teams into the NCAA tournament, but only Connecticut is left to carry the banner.

The Huskies will face the winner of Sunday's East Regional final, Kentucky or North Carolina, next Saturday in Houston.

What's to stop UConn karma now? The school won its two national titles, in 1999 and 2004, after winning the West Regional.

The Huskies were carried again by their dynamic-duo guards, Walker and Jeremy Lamb, who scored 39 of the team's 65 points. The pair had combined for 60 in Thursday's regional semifinal victory over San Diego State.

It's natural that Walker, a junior, garners most of the headlines with his acrobatic point-guard play. But Lamb, a freshman, has been a difference maker in Anaheim. He scored 24 to Walker's 36 on Thursday and 19 to Walker's 20 on Saturday.

"He grew up today," Walker said.

Lamb was the real instigator after Arizona went on a 14-2 run to take a 55-52 lead with 6:36 left, scoring six points in a 10-0 counter-run that kept Arizona chasing the Huskies until the end.

Arizona lacked the magic it had in Thursday's rout of defending champion Duke, when the Wildcats shot 54% and made nine of 15 three-point attempts.

No one left in the tournament was going keep up with that kind of precision.

Saturday's Wildcats, though, were definitely on the wild side, making only four of 21 from three-point range and shooting 39% for the game.

Williams, who made five of six three-point shots against Duke, landed only one of six against Connecticut.

Williams never found his rhythm after picking up three first-half fouls and playing only seven of 20 minutes.

He managed the second half without picking up another, but ended up playing only 26 minutes, finishing with 20 points and five rebounds.

Arizona (30-8) still had everything it could ask for in the waning moments after getting the ball back, down by two, with 18 seconds left.

The Wildcats had Williams, who willed his team to its first two tournament wins.

The final play, actually, was a "high-stagger" set up for Fogg, who had made two of his three three-point attempts.

Williams ended up with the ball, though, and shot with eight ticks remaining.

Arizona Coach Sean Miller said he didn't know if Williams' look was "a great one," but the ball in his hands at that point is "something you can live with."

Williams said he shot early to leave time to rebound in case he missed, which is exactly what happened.

Horne, a senior who had just made a three to cut the lead to one with a minute left, had the shot he wanted.

It just didn't go in, and Williams was first to console him.

"I had to give him a hug and try to calm him down," Williams said.

Horne couldn't beat the horn, but he wasn't the reason Arizona lost.

"Everybody wants to take some plays that they did wrong back, especially me," Williams said.

Arizona lost because it didn't shoot well and Connecticut never rests, or panics.

"You can't underestimate their poise," Miller said. "The poise isn't just Kemba Walker, the poise is the entire UConn team."

The Huskies now have six days off before playing their next game — they might go stir crazy.

Connecticut was just trying to win some dignity back on March 8 when it opened the Big East tournament.

"I didn't know what to expect after losing four out of five," center Alex Oriakhi said. "Everybody's confidence was down."

Nine wins later, Connecticut is 30-9 and headed straight to Houston.

Calhoun, in his 25th season in Storrs, will be coaching his fourth team in the Final Four. He has won two national titles — but this year's team is one he'll never forget.

"This unique group of young guys have just given me a thrill beyond compare," he said.

Going from ninth place to a place in history . . . in only 19 days?

It's going to be easy to sleep on that.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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