Jim Calhoun “I just couldn’t be any prouder of the kids. That’s what this league is about.”
The final call of 19 UConn vs. 3 Pittsburgh went a little something like this yesterday afternoon at MSG during the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament “CARDIAC KEMBA DOES IT AGAIN! UCONN WINS AT THE BUZZER!” In back-to-back days the 2011 Big East tournament has already produced two moments that will not be forgotten this season with the controversial non-calls made in the St.John’s/Rutgers contest and now Kemba Walker’s thrilling final shot to send the Huskies into the Big East semi-finals Friday night against 11 Syracuse.This quarterfinals matchup between the two Big East rivals was a nail bitter all the way through living up to the hype. With less than twenty seconds remaining, UConn head coach Jim Calhoun drew up a play in the huddle that gave Kemba Walker two options for the final shot of the contest. Walker had the option to take it on his own or dump it off to the substitute off the bench in Jamal Coombs-McDaniel if he was doubled upon receiving the inbound pass.
Was there any doubt in the building who was going to take the final shot? Walker used a combination of a crossover and a shoulder roll to break the ankles of his defender, Gary McGhee, and then step back and swish the game-winning basket as the horn sounded. Walker finished with 24 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals as the junior guard out of the Bronx, New York, put his stamp on Big East tournament history.Jim Calhoun joined WFAN in New York with Mike Francesa to discuss the great performance by the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team against the University of Pittsburgh in the quarterfinal round of the Big East tournament, if he was surprised a great defensive team like Pittsburgh would let Kemba Walker shoot the last shot of the game, how important the Big East tournament is to this young Huskies team, did he take his foot of the pedal with this young team early on in the season when they started off so well and did the Huskies need this kind of big win in the Big East tournament to get themselves going again.
That was a very good game and a very good performance for your kids that’s for sure?
“No question. You know the biggest thing is obviously I think Kemba is as good as a player as there is in the country and he’s valuable because he plays with six freshmen and three sophomores, therefore he does more. When we get contributions from other guys and three of our freshmen really stepped up big today along with Alex Oriakhi we’re just a totally different kind of team. Today I thought that was absolutely awesome for us and you know I have great respect for Pittsburgh. I think they could probably win the whole thing, but today we did something we don’t usually do. We out-rebounded them. We were 20-0 points off turnovers. We were stripping down on them and did a great, great, job.”
I was surprised that a team as good as Pittsburgh would of let Kemba Walker get off the last shot and not pass it off. Did that surprise you?
“We really were. The only switch we made put the kid Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, who’s been one of our best three-point shooters instead of having our big guy set the pick Mike, what we did was had a three-point shooter set the pick and then flair as oppose to roll, so they honored that and then [Gary] McGhee as you said ended up with Kemba [Walker] one-on-one and you know Kemba just…he actually made him [Gary McGhee] fall. I mean he’s obviously terrific with the basketball and he just pulled up for it, but you know you always second guess yourself in so many ways, but in that case that’s the way they played it.”
How important is this Big East tournament to your young team?
“Well I think you know I heard someone else say that the game against DePaul wasn’t important to us. It was [important] because it allowed us to feel good about ourselves. We know that DePaul isn’t a great team right now and I think overall bench they had was pretty good. The game is confidence. The game yesterday against Georgetown was really important to us because quite frankly for us to dominate them and they’re a very good team even without [Chris] Wright they’re a good team, number three in the country in defense and we shot 54-55%. That was a key…now we face a team in two days and we still have our offensive confidence. We at first got fairly beat up a little bit and we recovered so this time I come in and you know I always think in second chances. I talk about the kids…Friday night in Madison Square Garden for the Big East semifinals. About as special as you’re ever going to get. I think we gotta play to that. I think we fought hard enough, the ninth seed, we were like that more. We had a couple of tough games we lost at the end. When we played them back December 27th Mike it was a two-point game with about six to go and they ended up beating us by sixteen and tonight we didn’t wilt on them. We were down a little bit then we came back. I just couldn’t be any prouder of the kids. That’s what this league is about. There’s so many good teams.”
Did you take the foot off the pedal with this team after you guys had such a good start in the beginning of the season that you earned an NCAA tournament bid by December?
“Yeah a tad because they’re so young and it was always like when I was really pushing you gotta be careful about this. You push so hard that you don’t have much left at the end. I don’t want that and I’ve kind of learned that of the years that if you’re going to be really good, it’s nice to be good early, show everybody that you can get a cushion. The second time is to be really good in March because quite frankly that’s what people remember.”
Will this young team gain a lot by what happened today and tomorrow. Did this team need this?
“Yeah well we have seven freshmen. We have three sophomores, so ten of our players are coming back with all that said and cause we’re going to lose Kemba [Walker] most likely to the NBA, more importantly guys are experiencing “Big time games in big time arenas.” Every time you keep taking a step next week the NCAA tournament is nothing but good for our future and hopefully we can make a little run in the NCAA tournament. That would be great. As far as I am concerned every single game is the same and if you come out of the Big East and beat a Pittsburgh and beat some of the teams. We’ve beaten Texas. We’ve beaten as you know some of the teams we’ve beaten, you can beat anybody. I think that’s where we continue to convince our kids.”