NEW YORK — Kemba Walker capped the best five days an individual and team may have ever had in college basketball, scoring 19 points to lead No. 21 Connecticut to a 69-66 victory over No. 14 Louisville in the Big East championship Saturday night.
Walker, a 6-foot-1 junior guard, took home the most obvious MVP award in any conference tournament after leading the ninth-seeded Huskies (26-9) to five wins in as many days – the last four over teams ranked in the Top 25 – and the program's seventh conference title, tying Georgetown for the most in Big East history.
He finished the five games with 130 points, 46 more than the previous record. It wasn't just the points. He grabbed so many big rebounds, made so many key passes and clutch steals, all while exhibiting leadership good enough to take a team loaded with sophomores and freshmen to the championship.
Preston Knowles had 18 points for the third-seeded Cardinals (25-8) and his 3-point attempt at the buzzer bounced off the rim, setting off a well-deserved celebration by the Huskies.
When the Huskies ended the regular season with a home loss to Notre Dame, few gave them much chance at winning the tournament considering they would have to win five games to do it.
Nobody should have discounted a team with Walker.
He beat top-seeded Pittsburgh with a jumper at the buzzer. His game against fourth-seeded Syracuse in the semifinals was an all-around performance rarely seen by a guard.
He had 33 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and six steals.
Considering the way he struggled in the two regular-season losses to Louisville (36 points on 10-of-33 shooting), it seemed things were stacked against him.
Nobody should have discounted another great effort from Walker.
He picked up his second foul with 7:15 to play in the first half and the Huskies leading 27-15. He made one brief appearance in the final seconds and Connecticut held a 38-32 lead at halftime.
The second half was always close – neither team led by more than four points over the final 8 minutes – and the sellout crowd of 19,375 at Madison Square Garden seemed to be just waiting for Walker to do something special.
He made a great drop pass to Jeremy Lamb for a basket that gave the Huskies the lead for good at 65-64 with 33 seconds left.
Louisville turned the ball over on the inbound pass and Walker added two free throws with 16.4 seconds to go.
Knowles' 3-point attempt with 7 seconds left was tapped back out and Mike Marra was fouled by Walker taking a 3 with 3.9 seconds to go. Marra, a 78.6 percent free throw shooter, made the first and third to make it a one-point game.
Freshman Shabazz Napier was fouled with 3.3 seconds left and the 75.6 percent free throw shooter made both for the final margin.
Lamb had 13 points for the Huskies and fellow freshman Roscoe Smith had 12. Both grabbed seven rebounds.
Siva had 13 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for the Cardinals.
The tournament title moved Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun ahead of Georgetown's John Thompson for the most in conference history with seven.
Louisville, which beat Marquette and Notre Dame after receiving a double-bye to the quarterfinals, was looking for its second title in as many championship game appearances. The Cardinals won it all in 2009.
Pitino may have paid Walker the highest compliment of the five-day stretch.
When Walker was fouled in the second half as he flipped the ball over head toward the basket, Pitino yelled to the officials: "He's not Michael Jordan. He's not Michael Jordan."
For five special days in Madison Square Garden, he was.