I hate when I read columns about how the difference in the game was an individual player. I hate when those columns mention how much “heart” that player has and how he “willed his team to victory.” But after Friday night’s Syracuse-UConn game that is exactly what I have to write about.
Kemba Walker was fantastic. I had pretty much written him off as a volume shooter that had been overhyped because of his high scoring average and penchant for hitting clutch shots. But Walker proved he is so much more than that last night. Walker is listed at 6’1 but can’t be over 6 feet and yet he attacked every loose ball and got just about every rebound he possibly he could.
He was never more than a few feet away from the loose ball and despite playing 45 minutes never once looked tired. He caused chaos on both ends of the floor. He jumped into passing lanes and swiped for the ball on defense and drove hard to the bucket on offense. The end result was a game-high 33 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists and 6 steals. Beyond fantastic.
Walker leads by example and his fellow Huskies follow suit. Their defense caused all sorts of problem for the Orange. Syracuse attempted to penetrate but UConn swarmed and got many deflections on attempted passes off of drives. The Orange were forced into taking bad shots largely because there wasn’t a better option. This was just the third time all season a team has had more blocks and steals combined than Syracuse (Louisville in a loss and surprisingly enough, Canisius in the 2nd game of the season).
But despite Syracuse’s issues they still had a shot at the end thanks in large part to UConn’s errors. The Huskies turned it over twice on inbound passes in the final 1:10 and missed a couple key free throws to give the Orange a chance. Well, that combined with Scoop Jardine banking in a 3-pointer and sinking another one with under 5 seconds remaining.
Syracuse returned the favor though with mistakes of its own in overtime. The Orange went 1-for-4 on free throws including missing 2 front ends of 1-and-1s, hit just 1-of-6 shots and turned it over a couple of times. The result was a 76-71 loss.
The Huskies simply played harder than Syracuse and Walker led the way on both ends of the court. He didn’t hit the game-winning shot like he did against Pitt on Thursday but this was his most complete game of the season. Does he have enough left to win a fifth game in five days and take the Big East title? I wouldn’t bet against him.
-I went to the Pitt-UConn game and sat next to a few UConn fans. They asked me who I was rooting for and I told them the Huskies because there was no one on their team I disliked. In past years there had been players like Thabeet, Armstrong, and El-Amin who I wasn’t too fond of. But I now must amend my statement. I very much dislike Tyler Olander.
-Some SU fans (and players and coaches) might look at the free throw disparity (UConn shot 28 and Syracuse only shot 11) and make the assumption the refs were awful. I actually think they did a good job. The Huskies were more aggressive and deserved most of those free throws. Some might also point to the crucial non-goaltending call with about 2:30 remaining that then resulted in a transition 3-pointer to give the Huskies a 65-60 lead. It was a bad non-call but I have a couple things to say about that: 1. That shot wasn’t going in and UConn most likely would’ve gotten the rebound once it bounced out; and 2. It looked like CJ Fair got away with goaltending in overtime.