HOUSTON — Dribbling the ball near midcourt, Kemba Walker lingered for a few seconds. Legs tired, chest heaving, he looked at the Kentucky defenders almost as if he was trying to convince himself to go on.
After all those carry-the-team moments during an improbable run to the Final Four, Walker was worn out. He got his points, was a pretty good facilitator, too, but none of it came easy.
That’s where his teammates came in.
In the background for good chunks of Walker’s scene-stealing season, Kemba’s contributors made sure their star teammate didn’t have to carry the load himself in the brightest spotlight, giving Connecticut a chance at its third national title with a 56-55 win over Kentucky in the national semifinals Saturday night.
Freshman Jeremy Lamb provided the shooting, Alex Oriakhi did the dirty work inside and Shabazz Napier hit the clinching free throws after grabbing the game’s biggest rebound, sending the Huskies (31-9) into Monday’s NCAA title game against Butler.
“It’s just different guys every day doing big things for us and that’s what we need,” said Walker, who played all 40 minutes.
Walker had been a one-man show for most of the season, carrying Connecticut to its fourth Final Four by scoring in bunches, hitting the big shots seemingly every time the Huskies needed one.
But one reason UConn has made it this far is the contributions it’s gotten from Walker’s helpers over the final month of the season.
And they came up big when it mattered most.
Inconsistent early in the season — he played eight minutes when UConn faced Kentucky in Maui — Lamb has turned into a clutch shooter, his biggest points coming during a decisive run that pushed the Huskies past Arizona in the West regional.
Lamb’s emergence has given his coach a bit of payback for his father, Ronaldo, who knocked Jim Calhoun’s team from the 1984 NCAA tournament with a last-second shot for Virginia Commonwealth.
He played the sidekick role nicely again, spotting up for jumpers and driving hard to the basket, scoring eight points in the first half. Lamb had just four in the second — two on a nifty reverse in traffic that put the Huskies up 54-48 — but also grabbed nine rebounds and had four assists.
“I had a good first half,” Lamb said. “I knocked down a couple of shots.”
Oriakhi has become a different player late in the season as well.
The powerfully built sophomore forward frustrated Calhoun with his inconsistency during the regular season, but has transformed into a dirty-work demon over the past month, boxing out hard for rebounds, setting big screens, scrapping for loose balls.
Oriakhi was at it again, shaking off a bloodied elbow and sore hip from a hard fall in the first half to knock the Wildcats around inside. He set massive screens for UConn’s shooters throughout the game, played solid defense, grabbed 10 rebounds and hit the shots when he got them, going 4 of 6 from the floor for eight points.
“Alex just brings the energy, he brings that presence in the post, in the paint,” Walker said. “As long as Alex is having a big-time game rebounding the ball, stopping the other team’s best big men, we always seem to come out on top.”
Napier shot just 1 of 7 and had three turnovers, but played great defense throughout and had the clinchers, sneaking in among the giants to snare a rebound after DeAndre Liggins’ last-second 3-pointer clanged off the rim, then calmly sinking two free throws with 2 seconds left to get the Huskies into the title game.
“I thought Shabazz missed shots, but played terrific,” Calhoun said.
Walker got the Huskies to this point by putting on one of the best one-man shows in recent history, leading a bunch of underclassmen who were picked 10th in the Big East into the Final Four.
Starting with his single-handed dismantling of a strong Maui Invitational field, the jet-quick junior has been nearly unstoppable despite facing nearly every kind of defense imaginable.
Walker started his final remarkable run with a virtuoso performance in the Big East tournament and has been just as electrifying in the NCAAs, accounting for 37 percent of UConn’s points and over half its assists through it first four games.
The All-American had his way with Kentucky the first time these teams met in Maui, leading a spirit-crushing run just before halftime on his way to 29 points in UConn’s 17-point win.
Kentucky and Liggins, who took the brunt of Walker’s outburst in Maui, looked forward to getting another shot at Walker and figured to have a better game plan to stop him with more time to prepare.
The Wildcats did, with Liggins and Doron Lamb taking turns single-covering him, while getting plenty of help when he got to the lane or off a screen at the arc and mixing in some lane-clogging zones.
Walker fought for nine points in the first half and tried to take over the game after Kentucky trimmed away a 10-point deficit in the second, but couldn’t quite get it going.
Walker still finished with 18 points and helped in other ways, getting seven assists, six rebounds and a big blocked shot from behind, but was drooping over the final few minutes.
“Fatigue was definitely a factor at that point,” said Walker, who finished 6 for 15 from the floor. “I usually won’t tell you guys I was tired, but I actually was.”
He’s got one day to rest before the biggest game of his career, thanks to a lift from his teammates.