ANAHEIM, Calif. — Kemba Walker blinked. College basketball's omniscient guard, the god who sees all, knows all, does all, blinked.
Walker turned the ball over under his basket with 3:09 remaining Thursday night. D.J. Gay hit a three to cut the UConn lead to one and then, get this, Kemba blinked again. He shot an airball — an airball — with 2:32 left. Kawhi Leonard came down, lined up his own three, one that San Diego State coach Steve Fisher swore was going in for the lead. Only it didn't.
And then damn if Kemba who owned, oh, 36 minutes of this game with 36 magnificent points, didn't blink a third time. With 1:48 left, Walker missed a jumper that led to a rebound by Alex Oriakhi that, in turn leads to the moral of this story.
The sins of the father have not been visited upon his son's coach.
Oriakhi found Jeremy Lamb, son of Rolando, whose buzzer-beater for VCU knocked Calhoun's Northeastern team out of the 1984 NCAA Tournament, open for a three. And then, yes, there was a hush. It was clever at first, then a little cliché and now the following five words seem inevitable: the Silence of the Lamb. The freshman put UConn up 68-64 with 1:42 left. It was the quiet dagger in what amounted to a UConn road game.
" Huge play," Fisher said. "Lamb is a terrific player."
Only the freshman from Georgia wasn't finished. After Gay missed a three, Lamb pulled in the rebound. And after Walker missed another shot, Lamb used those long, long, long, long arms to steal a pass by Gay. Shabazz Napier waited for Lamb to catch up and set up an emphatic dunk.
"I knew somebody was open behind me and he telegraphed the pass," said Lamb, who tied his career high of 24 points.
In its notes package, SDSU brags about the great wingspan of its frontline, ranging up to nearly 7-1.We don't have a measuring tape, but Jim Calhoun keeps insisting Lamb's is 7-4. Oh what the heck. Today his wingspan is 8-4.
Lamb's dunk put UConn up by six. Suddenly, UConn was in the Elite Eight. Suddenly, we thought we had UConn and Duke meeting Saturday. Suddenly we thought we had Calhoun and Coach K back in the ring together. Only we didn't. Arizona crushed Duke. Now, and you may wish to telegraph or tweet this, UConn basketball, which seemed anemic a year ago, is back where it belongs. Duke or no Duke.
And that's when Napier set up Lamb one more time for a dunk with three seconds to go. It is called the punctuation mark. And it goes something like this: !
"I appreciate you not talking to Jeremy," Calhoun said to the growing national media. "How many guys get 24 points in a Sweet 16 and give all the credit to somebody else? We'd like to keep him for a few more years, so cool it. He's humble. Let's keep it that way. I keep telling Jeremy you have so many more things you can do. You get strength and maybe a couple of years down the road you might be able to play at the next level. So we're going to chill with all those comments."
But, of course, Calhoun couldn't restrain himself. Lamb hit those two overtime shots against Syracuse in the Big East tournament, he hit the decisive layup against Louisville in the final and shrugged, leading Calhoun to observe that the kid will never suffer from high blood pressure.
So here he was again, a full continent away, back at it. This is Kemba's season. This is Kemba's month. This was Kemba's night. But the final 1:48, man, it belonged to Jeremy Lamb. And Lamb? The freshman just smiles, shrugs and gives his favorite line. "I'm a chill dude."
"I don't think he worries about it," said Calhoun of the pressure situations. "Sometimes you get kids who all of a sudden have aspirations, these illusions … I always thought Caron Butler was a great player for us for two years because Caron was with us today. He didn't think about what was coming.
"Jeremy has no idea how good he is. He could be great. I think that has allowed him to play as a freshman for this team and not worry about anything else. He reminds me of Richard Hamilton in that way. They take shots. They don't worry if there's 30 seconds or 30 minutes left. It doesn't change them. It's unusual. He's a bright kid. He just doesn't get caught up in it."
Calhoun isn't surprised by Lamb. Lamb isn't surprised by Lamb. And neither is Walker.
"As far as [suddenly arriving as a player], no," Walker said. "Jeremy has been playing some great basketball for a long time now. He had 24 before [against Marquette on Jan. 25]. He had one stretch early in the season where he was unstoppable. But I'm happy he had a big game. We needed it."
Round 1 Column