Paced by star Kemba Walker, Connecticut has beaten two of the top four seeds to reach the finals of the Big East tournament. A victory over another of the league’s best teams would secure the Huskies a place in tournament history.
The ninth-seeded and No. 21 Huskies look to match a tournament record with their seventh title while trying to avoid a fifth consecutive loss to third seed and No. 14 Louisville Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
While those wins helped instill some confidence, the Huskies proved they still might be one of the nation’s elite teams after Walker sank a last-second shot for a 76-74 win over No. 1 seed Pittsburgh on Thursday. Walker then scored 33 points and pulled down 12 rebounds in a 76-71 overtime victory over fourth-seed Syracuse on Friday.
Now, UConn will try to avenge a pair of regular-season losses to Louisville (24-8) by winning five games in five days to equal Georgetown for the most titles in tournament history. The Huskies have not won the event since 2004.
“It’s tough, but we’re ready for the challenge,” said Walker, a Bronx native who has averaged 27.8 points in the tournament. “We’re mentally tough and we’re just going to stay together.”
With Walker leading the way, anything seems possible for the Huskies. He added six steals and five assists in another gutsy effort Friday.
“Someone must have questioned if he is best player,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. “I think he is the most valuable player on any college team in America.”
Walker, who totaled 36 points against the Cardinals this season, was held to 16 in a 71-58 loss at Louisville on Feb. 18.
However, after 6-foot-9 Alex Oriakhi posted 15 points with 11 rebounds and guard Jeremy Lamb added 11 points in the semifinal, the Cardinals know they must be aware of more than Walker.
Louisville needed double-overtime to win 79-78 at UConn on Jan. 29.
“We’ve played them twice, we know them very well, we know the Connecticut team very well,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “I think the mistake we’ve made is trying to stop one key guy and somebody else beats you.”
While Walker and UConn have been the story of this tournament, Louisville has posted a pair of impressive victories to put itself in position for a second title in three years.
After holding Marquette to 29.8 percent shooting in an 81-56 quarterfinal win Thursday, the Cardinals overcame a 16-point deficit to beat No. 4 Notre Dame 83-77 in overtime Friday, their fourth consecutive win against ranked opponents.
While neither team shot great, the Cardinals stepped up their pressure defense to outscore the Irish 40-26 in the second half and 11-5 in the extra session.
“Coach Pitino told us to stay aggressive, play smart and play the way we play,” said guard Peyton Siva, who had 15 points and seven assists before fouling out. “He had faith in us and when I fouled out I had to have faith in my teammates and our bench.”
Leading scorer Preston Knowles scored 20 points. The senior guard has averaged 17.5 points the last four games, but 8.8 in six career games versus UConn.
Siva had 19 points and seven assists in the double-overtime victory over the Huskies.