Following UConn’s loss to Notre Dame in the regular-season finale March 5 in Storrs, Conn., Walker made a bold prediction to his mother, Andrea.
“Don’t worry, ma,” Kemba told his mother. “We are bringing home the Big East trophy.”
Exactly a week later, Walker and his teammates set a national postseason record by winning their fifth game in five days by knocking off Louisville, 69-66, to win UConn’s first Big East tournament title since 2004.
“[It’s] unreal,” said Andrea Walker, who attended the game with her husband, Paul. “It’s like he had a premonition or something that we was going to do it, and it came true.”
The capacity crowd of 19,375 included Knicks star Carmelo Anthony in the front row and Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson, whose team faces the Knicks Sunday.
Walker finished with 19 points on 6 of 14 shooting and set a new national record for points in a postseason tournament with 130 in five games. Walker shattered the previous Big East tournament record of 84 held by Syracuse’s Eric Devendorf in 2009.
Walker was named Most Outstanding Player of the Big East tournament.
“Now that the tournament is over I definitely can tell you that I was tired,” the former Manhattan Rice star said with a broad smile. “I was gassed. I just wanted to win this game so bad that my heart took over.”
UConn (25-9), picked to finish 10th in the Big East, will likely enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed next week, according to Jerry Palm of CollegeRPI.com.
“As long as we are in the tournament and we get a reasonable seed, hopefully we’ll take a day off and be ready to play,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. “I think we showed in the past [five] days that we’re a pretty good basketball team.”
UConn freshman Jeremy Lamb made the All-Tournament Team, along with Preston Knowles and Peyton Siva of Louisville, Scott Martin of Notre Dame and Rick Jackson of Syracuse.
Knowles led Louisville (25-8) with 18 points and Siva added 13.
UConn led by as many as 14 points in the first half, but trailed in the second after Walker went to the bench with foul trouble and Knowles heated up for the Cardinals.
Lamb, a 6-foot-5 wing from Norcross, Ga., scored 13 points, including a critical layup off a pass from Walker to put the Huskies up 65-64 with less than a minute left.
“I had no choice but to trust him,” Walker said. “That was the only pass I could make. I couldn’t get a shot up or nothing.”
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.
“I was mad at myself because coach said, ‘Stay down,'” Walker said of the foul. “I’m telling everybody, ‘Stay down’ and I’m the one that jumped. I wasn’t mad at myself but we were fortunate enough for him to miss that free throw.”
Shabazz Napier hit two foul shots with 3.3 seconds left for the game’s final points.
Walker concluded a magical tournament in which he hit a game-winning jumper as time expired to knock off top-seeded Pitt on Wednesday and followed that up with 33 points, 12 rebounds, 6 steals and 5 assists in UConn’s overtime win against No. 4 Syracuse in the semifinals.
At one point early in the second half against Louisville, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino pleaded with the officials not to give Walker preferential treatment after he was fouled on an off-balance layup attempt.
“He’s not Michael Jordan, he’s not Michael Jordan,” Pitino shouted.
Told of that comment, Walker said, “I’m not Michael Jordan, I’m Kemba Walker.”
Walker, generously listed at 6-foot-1, surely helped his NBA stock with his performance here this week.
“Of course, Kemba, he’s great,” Stephenson said. “He’s grown a lot. I remember we played against each other when he was at Rice. It was tough battles. And I see him in college, he’s doing it big.
“He’s got the quickness and speed [to succeed in the NBA]. His speed is great and he can use that in the NBA game.”
The NBA lies ahead, but for now Walker made good on his promise to his mother.
He said he couldn’t put the joyous moment into words, but was simply happy his parents were there to share it with him.
“A lot of people aren’t fortunate enough to have both their parents and I am,” Walker said. “I’m just thankful for both my parents.”
(Photo courtesy Daily News; The AP contributed)