The MC 5
UConn is off to the Motor City for its third trip to the Final Four, all within the past decade. They'll play the winner of tomorrow's Midwest Regional final between Louisville and Michigan State on Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit.
"I'm ecstatic," said 23rd-year head coach Jim Calhoun. "The first one (1999) was emotional, the second one (2004) was actually wonderful because we had the best team in the country, in my opinion. I'm going now with a group who found a way – found a way to get to a Final Four. That's a hard, hard, hard thing to do.
"I couldn't be happier."
UConn won national titles in its previous two trips, which also happened to come after winning West Regional championships in Phoenix. As they did (or didn't) do in 2004, the Huskies decided not to cut down the nets following Saturday's win, as is tradition with most teams.
"We believe that we can cut down the nets in Detroit," said Jeff Adrien. "We didn't do it in '04, and we didn't do it today, because we believe that we'll cut down the nets where it really counts."
In fact, the Huskies tried do a lot of the same things the 1999 and 2004 teams did in Phoenix during their respective runs through the West Regionals and, ultimately, to national titles. That meant eating at the same Mexican restaurant one night and the same restaurant at Chase Field on another.
"We were very superstitious around here, and we do the same thing," said Adrien. "If it gets us to where we want to be, why not keep doing it?"
Calhoun jokingly took it a step further.
"I'm buying a house. I purchased land yesterday afternoon that says 'tentative,' unless we win today. I will come out here once every five years."
***With about 10 minutes left to play, A.J. Price, the senior point guard, took aside his protégé Kemba Walker, the freshman point guard, and offered him some words.
"I told Kemba … '(You're) growing up today,'" Price recalled. "He grew up. He played like a man among boys."
After scoring a game-high, career-high matching 23 points, to go with five assists, five rebounds and just a pair of turnovers amid Missouri's frenetic fullcourt pressure, Walker didn't exactly disagree.
"(On Saturday), I think I did grow up kind of fast," he admitted.
Indeed, with the Huskies trailing for the first time since the first few minutes of its NCAA tournament opening-round game, Hasheem Thabeet was on the bench with three fouls, their Arizona-hot first-half shooting was suddenly frigid, and their energy seemingly sapped by Missouri's choking fullcourt pressure, Walker stepped up huge -- swathing through the Tigers' press while hitting one big shot after another.
Walker matched a career high with 23 points and joined regional MVP Price on the all-tourney team. He hit a high, driving bank shot that snapped a 50-50 tie, a similar shot that made it a 63-59 game with 5:37 left, then hit Thabeet with a nifty pass for a layup.
But Walker's most improbable shot came with 2:11 to play and UConn clinging to a three-point lead. With the shot clock winding down, Walker banked in a wild, fallaway jumper that gave the Huskies a 70-65 lead.
"Time was running down, the ball was in my hands, and Jeff (Adrien) was there about to set a screen," Walker recalled. "I told him to get out of my way. I kind of just took over. The guy actually played me kind of well. I was turning and turning and I had to get it up. I threw it up, God helped me and it went in."
It was somewhat of a backbreaker for the Tigers.
"Sometimes you've got to make plays. That was one of those plays," said Missouri guard J.T. Tiller. "That put us back on our heels. I thought we played great defense for 35 seconds. It kind of describes what kind of day it was."
Added Tiger coach Mike Anderson: "That's where you say, 'Whoa, what's taking place?'"
***Can anyone name The MC 5's most famous song? How about their lead singer? (See, it's starting already).
***UConn went 26-for-32 (81.3 percent) from the charity stripe. Walker and Craig Austrie were a perfect 10-for-10 over the final minute.
***When asked what it meant to be labeled a "Bronx guard," Walker replied: "Speed, handle, just a tough player."
"And moxie," Price added, after watching his protégé grow up on Saturday afternoon.
***As the Huskies passed the West Regional trophy around on the podium at midcourt, a sharp-dressed young man implored, "Let your boy get a touch."
It was Jerome Dyson, who proudly held the trophy up high. Dyson suffered a season-ending injury on Feb. 11, but after some initial struggles, the Huskies regrouped and are playing as well as ever.
"I'm extremely happy," said Dyson. "We've been waiting for this for a long time. This year, people were doubting us, saying we weren't deserving of a No. 1 seed, and we weren't going to make it without me. And we're here now.
"I definitely feel like I'm a part of it. My teammates always tell me I'm still a part of the team, so it never came to me that I felt like I wasn't."
***Tears flowed in both locker rooms following the game, obviously for different reasons.
At the postgame press conference, Missouri senior shooting guard Matt Lawrence was asked if it was more difficult losing the game or knowing he'd no longer be playing with his teammates.
"As we got back in the locker room," he said, voice trembling and tears flowing, "it was more about those guys that I will never get to play with again."
Teammate Leo Lyons, seated next to him, put his hand on Lawrence's shoulder, consoling him.
Walker, meanwhile, admitted to getting misty-eyed, as well.
"I can't lie to you," he said. "After the game, I kind of did cry."
Unlike in 1999, no tears from Jim Calhoun -- yet.
"I'm as happy as I possibly can be about the basketball situation. I'm so proud. I mean, I feel like busting out, because I think they are really special, what they did once they get dealt a real tough blow. It took some bounces, it took some bruises, (but) here we go to the Final Four.
"I’m just elated."