STORRS, Conn. — Kemba Walker powered Connecticut to a third national title and in return the school put the star guard’s name and number on the wall of Gampel Pavilion.
It was a surprise moment during Tuesday’s victory rally before about 7,500 rabid UConn fans who came to the arena to celebrate Monday night’s 53-41 win over Butler, and chanted “Kemba Walker,” and “One more year.”
The junior playmaker, who averaged 23.7 points during the NCAA tournament, cried and pulled his championship hat over his eyes as a drape that covered his banner was pulled away. He became the 14th Connecticut player to join the “Huskies of Honor” wall — the first to receive the honor while he was still in school.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Walker said. “Every kid wants his jersey or his number to be retired and this is pretty special.”
It’s been a special month for Walker, whose team was picked to finish 10th in the Big East in the preseason, but completed a remarkable 11-0 run through the postseason that also included a conference tournament championship.
“He has had an incredible season, that no one before has ever had at UConn,” coach Jim Calhoun said. “When you get in that category of being called by one name … that’s pretty special.”
Special enough that any future Huskies will have to ask Walker for permission if they want to wear his No. 15. That’s the type of pull you get for playing a key role in Connecticut’s third NCAA men’s basketball championship and first since 2004.
“You are an inspiration to your fellow citizens here in Connecticut. You are a great pride to your university,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told the team shortly after it arrived at Bradley Airport. “This team, just amazing.”
The Huskies shook hands with several dozen fans that lined an airport fence in a cold rain, then boarded buses for campus, where students such as 21-year-old junior Matt Kuruc had been partying since Monday night.
“This whole campus is feeling great about this,” he said. “There’s nothing else I can do but celebrate this best win that we could possibly get. It’s amazing.”
The UConn Co-op, the campus bookstore, had almost sold out of national championship shirts and hats by Tuesday afternoon, and had already reordered twice.
Sophomore Bryan McCloskey, 20, of Guilford, was among the bleary-eyed shoppers looking for souvenirs.
“There’s been classes, but I skipped my first one because I was a little bit tired,” he said. “I went to bed at 2:30. Everybody was totally pumped.”
Fans at the rally implored Calhoun, who turns 69 next month, to keep coaching. But Calhoun was making no promises. He said he plans to do some golfing and reflect on the season before deciding whether to return.
“But I love this university, and how can you not get goose bumps when you walk into the building like this with our students,” he said.
Those student gave him and each coach and player a long ovation, but clearly had come to see one in particular.
“Kemba,” said 13-year-old Derek Byers of Burlington. “I just love his playing style. He is awesome.”
Walker also has a decision to make and is expected to declare for the NBA draft. But with a lockout looming, he also left his options open.
“It would be a lot of fun if I came back,” he said. “These guys are my brothers and I love them. So if I have an opportunity to come back, it would be special.”
Police say fans caused minor property damage on campus and in Storrs on Monday night. No serious injuries were reported.
Campus police arrested 24 revelers, and state police made three off-campus arrests. Most were for vandalism, but others were accused of breach of peace, inciting a riot, criminal trespassing and interfering with a police officer. Of the 24 arrested on campus, 10 are UConn students. No one was held and all will be called to court this month.
“For the most part the celebrations were good-natured,” UConn police Maj. Ronald Blicher said. “A few people stepped out of line.”
Police said one car was flipped and a couple of fires were started in dumpsters. A couch was set on fire and a car was overturned at an off-campus apartment complex. State police say a crowd of 200 or so had gathered, and some were throwing bottles at troopers. Dogs were used to disperse the crowd.